Doctors, just like any other sector of the population, struggle with common addictions. This includes drug and alcohol addiction. What’s more, this is not less than the general population. Rates may be similar. Some researchers estimate, they may be higher.
In an article in the Daily Beast, entitled The Secret World of Drug-Addict Doctors, author Kent Sepkowitz, an infectious-disease specialist in New York City, describes this hidden side of medicine:
“The number of drug- and alcohol-addicted physicians and nurses is estimated at 10% to 14%, similar to the general population. The subset comprised by drug addicts alone is not known, but the composition of those with a drug (not alcohol) problem is well characterized. In the medical world, three specialists account for a substantially higher proportion than other specialties: anesthesiologists, emergency room specialists, and psychiatrists.”
Reasons for Addiction
The reason for substance abuse among physicians is actually not hard to find. Doctors are not above the risk factors that affect the general population. Like everyone else, they have had their share of childhood traumas and mood disorders. They also have as much of a genetic disposition for alcoholism as other people.
Knowledge is Not a Deterrent
A doctor’s deeper understanding of risks of substance abuse is not enough to dissuade. Psychology is often stronger rationality.
Besides genetic and psychological reasons, doctors face an inordinate amount of stress. This stress starts long before they practice medicine. It may even start as early as early as their undergraduate years. Worse still, their medical knowledge gives them a better understanding of what to use. They know the side-effects of medications that improve focus and concentration to ace exams. They also know what to use to relieve anxiety or depression.
Most people do not realize how long it takes to become a doctor or how hard it is to study to qualify as one.
First, there is undergraduate school, which is four years. Second, is medical school, which is another four years. Third, there is the residency program, which is another three years. This is the minimum. If doctors decide to specialize, they may spend another three years in a fellowship.
During this time, there is intense pressure to do well. Competition is fierce. Poor grades mean you’re out. There are always more students than schools to accommodate them. Moreover, the subjects are often complicated. It requires an inordinate amount of persistence to concentrate for long hours at a time.
Substance abuse, under these circumstances, offers relief. A medical opiate can instantly relieve anxiety and fatigue. Moreover, fellow students may become co-conspirators.
Long Hours at Work
The stress does not end once your education and schooling is over. Now, it just changes from academic pressure to work-life pressure. A doctor will spend long hours at work, and always be on call. Work weeks can often go beyond 60 hours.
In addition, their personal and family life suffers. Relationships with spouses and children are often riddled with conflict. Worse still, there is not enough personal time to relieve stress. There is almost no time for healthy habits. A busy doctor does not have enough time to eat a balanced diet, to get enough exercise, or to get enough rest at night. These factors compromise a doctor’s immune system. They make him or her susceptible to serious illness or mood disorders. Ideally, anyone with alcoholic tendencies should seek alcohol rehab treatment to get their life on track. Sadly, it often takes a crisis before a doctor decides to seek help.
3 Reasons Why Doctors May Not Seek Help
There are three primary reasons why a doctor may not get the help they need. The first is that they put their patient’s health care before their own. The second is that they have become numb to the effects of stress. And the third is that it is easy to get their hands on an addictive substance.
Let’s take a closer look at these factors.
First, they put their patient’s health care before their own. Taking care of patients is one of the most satisfying aspects of being a doctor. Going into rehab can mean delegating the work to someone else. This is difficult for doctors with a high sense of responsibility toward their patients. There is a lot of personal satisfaction helping patients. It’s rewarding to ease pain and discomfort. It’s rewarding to save lives. And it’s rewarding to be in a profession that relieves the suffering of the human race.
Second, they become numb to the effects of stress. Numbing out does not mean that stress has gone. It has just disappeared. Chronic stress can build up to a point where it becomes unconscious. Instead of learning to relieve or manage it, a doctor may self-medicate to mask the symptoms.
Third, they can get their hands on addictive substance. Since a doctor writes prescriptions all day, it’s simple to write one for themselves. This may be one reason why doctors may have a higher rate of substance abuse over the general population.