Healthcare workers probably don’t come to mind when you think of professions that are vulnerable to addiction, but those in this field are not immune to substance abuse. In some cases, healthcare professionals may struggle with addiction, leading those who spend their lives caring for others to need care themselves.

Does substance abuse really occur in healthcare workers?

Given their education and knowledge of the dangers of addiction, it may seem impossible that healthcare workers would ever fall victim to drug abuse, but a substance use disorder can truly happen to anyone. According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, about 5.5 percent of people in the healthcare/social assistance field report using illegal drugs within a given month, and 4.4 percent report heavy alcohol use. Furthermore, in a given year, about 5.7 percent will meet criteria for a substance use disorder, which is the clinical term for an addiction.

To place rates of substance abuse among medical professionals into context, it is helpful to know the prevalence among the general population. Data show that within a given year, 5.4 percent of the U.S. population aged 12 and older experiences an alcohol use disorder, and 3.0 percent of the population experiences a substance use disorder involving an illegal drug. Given these prevalence rates, it seems that the overall rate of substance abuse among healthcare workers is similar to what is seen in the general population, meaning that those in the medical field are just as likely as anyone else to fall victim to addiction.

Risk Factors for Addiction in the Healthcare Profession

Addiction in the healthcare profession as a whole may reflect what is seen in the general population, but specific healthcare professions may be at greater risk. For instance, experts report that prescription drug abuse is much higher among physicians than in the general population. This isn’t surprising given their increased access to these substances.

According to one report, physicians may begin taking opioids to treat pain, eventually developing an addiction that leads them to “doctor shop” or begin prescribing medications for themselves to get additional opioids. Physicians may also abuse prescription medications like opioids or anti-anxiety drugs to cope with emotional problems or the stress of work. Research suggests that those working in anesthesiology, emergency medicine, and psychiatry may be particularly vulnerable to addiction.

Treatment for Physicians

Healthcare professionals, especially physicians, who are in need of addiction treatment may present unique challenges. For example, because of their status, they may deny that their substance abuse is problematic. In fact, research has shown that physicians can wait as long as six and a half years before seeking treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. This is concerning, as impairment can have significant negative consequences for patients under the care of medical staff who abuse substances.

Given the need for healthcare workers to be free from impairment to provide the best patient care possible, it is generally recommended that they undergo more aggressive addiction treatment than the general population. Experts recommend intensive, structured programs lasting three to six months, rather than the standard 28-day stay in residential treatment.

Physicians and healthcare professionals may be fearful of seeking addiction treatment, because they worry about losing their jobs or receiving sanctions on their professional licenses. This can complicate matters further and prevent medical workers from getting the care they need.

The good news is that healthcare workers who seek treatment and resolve the issues that led to addiction are likely to be successful. One study found that 81% of doctors who were monitored long-term after receiving treatment had negative urine drug test results, and 95% were still licensed and employed five years after completing treatment. Ultimately, seeking help can put an end to addiction and reduce the likelihood of career-ending consequences.