Addiction in Healthcare

Healthcare professionals have always had the responsibility of caring for their patients, not only by direct care, but also by the example of their lives and personal conduct. Misuse of alcohol or any form of drug addiction among those of us who have the privilege of holding a license is an occupational problem than causes the same concern as a criminal act in a policeman or judge. The license itself grants us access to and administration of the very substances that lead us to addiction, yet provide care and relief for our patients. This social and professional concern demands that extraordinary action be taken to ensure that the addicted nurse, doctor, dentist or pharmacist is detected, treated, and rehabilitated.

The door has been opened for many questions surrounding the addicted health professional. Let’s concentrate on the nursing profession. What are the signs and symptoms of an addicted nurse? How prevalent is this problem? What do you do if you suspect a nurse of having a problem? What happens to the nurse who does have a problem?

Chemical Dependency is one of the most disabling illnesses for the medical professional, and as such poses a major problem for the professions. This does not mean however, that the disease of chemical dependency occurs more frequently in nurses than it does in the general population. The statistics show us that the rate of addiction for the general population is approximately 10%, which is basically the same as the rate for the nursing profession. What this tells us is that most of us working in the profession, will at some time during the course of our career, work with, hear of, or have a relationship with someone suffering with this disease. We may even develop the disease ourselves. Some signs and symptoms of the addicted nurse are as follows:

  • Works long hours
  • Administers most of the pain medication
  • Asks for the patients who are taking the most pain meds
  • Wide mood swings, with frequent trips to the bathroom
  • Wearing long sleeves when everyone else is wearing short sleeves
  • Patients complaining of not receiving relief from their pain
  • Appearance deteriorates, looks unkempt
  • Isolates and withdraws from activities
  • Alcohol on breath

The purpose and mission of the Nursing Board is to first and foremost protect the public, but it is also the duty and obligation of every nurse to protect patient safety and report any suspicions of a colleague who is working in an impaired fashion. We often have concerns of what will happen to “that” nurse if we report them? Will I be sued; will the nurse lose his/her license? The outcome is not the issue. The issue is to protect the patient, and while you are protecting the patient, you are very likely saving this nurse’s life. You are stopping the disease process, which is something an addicted nurse cannot do without help. Intervention, treatment, aftercare and monitoring will work; it protects the public, saves the life of the nurse with this disease, and allows the nurse to remain in nursing, if that is the appropriate outcome. The only thing you can do “wrong”is to do nothing at all… to be continued.

By Carol Bowers, R.N.C.D.
Director of Alumni Services
Director of Mirror Image

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