No one wants or expects their treating physician to be addicted to drugs or alcohol. Addiction leads to mistakes and mistakes lead to unnecessary harms suffered by patients. The effects of drugs or alcohol can cloud a physician’s decision-making process and cause unintended injuries to patients. Most patients are not in the position to suspect or know that their health care provider is high while providing them care and treatment and they may not discover that a cause of an unanticipated medical outcome was due, at least in part, to the clouded decisions of their addicted doctor.
The rate of physician addiction in the United States is estimated to be equal to or higher than in the general population (about 10% to 12% of physicians will develop a substance abuse disorder during their professional careers). A physician’s addictive disease is often more advanced than in the general population before it is identified and intervention is begun. Because physicians tend to mask their addiction while at work in order to protect their professional reputation, image, and performance in the workplace, their lives away from work may have already deteriorated substantially before their addictive disease is diagnosed. Their high social status and the stigma of substance abuse often lead to social isolation when physicians are addicted to drugs or alcohol, which contributes to the delay in diagnosing and treating physicians’ addictive disease.
Fear that the discovery of their addiction will cause negative consequences to their medical licenses (such as the loss of their medical license or restrictions placed on their license) contributes to efforts to hide their addiction and may be another factor in the delay of diagnosis and intervention for addicted doctors. The families of addicted doctors will often willingly participate in the conspiracy of silence regarding physician addiction because they fear the loss of family income if the addiction were to become public knowledge.
The results of one study of physician addiction involving 904 physicians (87% were male) who were enrolled in state physician health programs showed that alcohol was the primary drug of abuse for 50.3%, opioids were abused by 35.9%, stimulants were the drugs that were abused by 7.9%, and other drugs were involved with 5.9%. Abuse of multiple substances were reported by 50% of the physicians, 13.9% had a history of intravenous drug use, and 17% had previous addiction treatment.
The following medical specialties had a disproportionately higher propensity toward addiction: anesthesiology, emergency medicine, and psychiatry. Physicians in these medical specialties tend to abuse different classes of drugs: only about 10% of alcohol-abusing anesthesiologists enter alcohol addiction treatment despite alcohol being the drug of choice in such a high percentage of the overall physician addiction cases (addicted anesthesiologists tend to be addicted to opioids such as fentanyl and sufentanil, for which they tend to have easy access and can divert them from their workplaces and their patients).
On the bright(er) side, physicians have a much greater abstinence rate than in the general population following completion of an addiction/rehabilitation program: abstinence rates for physicians completing addiction treatment are between 74% and 90%.
Nonetheless, the most important legal and ethical obligation of a hospital or employer of an addicted physician is to protect patients by removing addicted physicians from practice and counseling the addicted physician to take a leave of absence to receive treatment for his/her addiction.
If an addicted physician or other addicted health care provider may have caused you to suffer injuries or harms, the addicted medical provider and/or his employer (such as a hospital) may be held responsible to you for the harms that you suffered.
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