Good Doctors, Desperate Measures and the Opioid Crisis

When it comes to healing, doctors are on the front lines. Day in, day out, they bring their knowledge, experience and compassion to try to help those who are sick and injured.

But the job isn’t always rewarding. In fact, many doctors struggle physically and mentally to stay in their profession — and sometimes that struggle leads to addiction.

While the estimated rate of addiction among the general population is 8-10 percent, according to a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed by Dr. Peter Grinspoon, author of Free Refills: A Doctor Confronts His Addiction, “among physicians, those rates start at 10 percent and rise to 15 percent. What appears to account for the difference is physician distress, and in the case of drug abuse, plentiful access.”1

Medical professionals who work in higher-risk specialties like anesthesia and emergency medicine often have higher rates of drug abuse, as do those with easier access to drugs like pharmacists. At least one study reported drug abuse among pharmacists as high as 21 percent.2

It’s a frightening proposition, when the ones we trust to help us in times of medical crisis are in the throes of crisis themselves.

Beyond Self-Medicating: Why Doctors Turn to Drugs

So what’s happening among our medical professionals? Why are our doctors turning to drugs, when they — of all people — understand how addictive prescription medications can be?

A 2013 University of Florida study of 55 physicians being monitored for substance abuse issues revealed some tell-tale truths. First, it reported that 69.1 percent of the participants reported a history of misusing prescription drugs. This behavior didn’t just happen on a whim, or on a particularly hard day — these physicians had an ongoing problem of drug misuse.3

In many ways, it comes as no surprise. After years of medical school and internships, years of working long hours under tight insurance-mandated schedules, the pressure-cooker environment takes a toll.

Participants in the study listed five core reasons why they turned to substance abuse to begin with:

  • To manage physical pain
  • To manage emotional/psychiatric distress
  • To manage stressful situations
  • To serve recreational purposes
  • To avoid withdrawal symptoms3

In other words, burnout, depression and anxiety are especially common among physicians. Perhaps that’s why many leave medicine mid-career and why they’re twice as likely as the general population to commit suicide.1

Easy Access to Opioids Fuels Addiction

One root cause of the problem is accessibility. Physicians have easy and legal access to most any drugs on the pharmaceutical market. These drugs literally walk right in their office door. Drug company sales reps provide free samples, hoping to convince physicians to prescribe more of their drug type and brand over others.

Patients often bring their unused painkillers to their doctors for disposal. It’s free access with no questions asked. Doctors can easily switch out pain relievers like Tylenol for opioids or examine painkillers out of sight of patients and simply take and keep half the supply.4 Medical colleagues write prescriptions as a professional courtesy, rarely stopping to consider whether or not it’s necessary.

If a physician begins misusing opioids, it’s easy to hide the problem. Doctors use their own prescription pads illegally to procure drugs, writing excessive prescriptions to patients who then repay the physician with pills. This can go on for years. Often, the problem has to grow exponentially before authorities begin to investigate.

The Stigma Hides the Secret

You might think the medical profession — where most professionals understand that addiction is a brain disease — would be quick to help heal its own. But sadly, the stigma and criminality of addiction keeps many doctors and other health professionals afraid of seeking help.

Grinspoon knows this from personal experience. As a doctor slips into the clutches of addiction, he or she only rarely seeks help. Though state medical boards, which are made up of doctors for the most part, should be enlightened enough to treat addiction as a disease, they often handle it more like a crime. Addicted physicians face colossal stigma and the very real possibility they will lose their license if they come forward.”1

He says this is why doctors struggling with addiction hide until disaster strikes. When a doctor gets a DUI, shows up high in the operating room or, as in Grinspoon’s case, gets charged with a serious crime like prescription drug fraud, that’s when the consequences begin to outweigh the fear of seeking treatment.

Disasters like these are why quick intervention is so important — because physicians and other medical professionals hold people’s lives, literally, in their hands. If their addictions stay hidden, their patients are at greater risk.

So how can you tell if a doctor you know may be struggling with addiction? Dr. Stephen Loyd, who once had a prescription drug problem, tells The Fix these red flags should raise concern:

  • Working at odd hours or unexpected times
  • Producing sloppy medical records that were previously thorough
  • Inattention to detail and making errors, such as having to rewrite prescriptions because of incorrect medications and doses
  • Being extremely late for appointments
  • Canceling and rescheduling with patients several times
  • Constantly moving clinics
  • Arguing with other medical staff
  • Undergoing physical changes like looking tired or losing weight
  • Displaying personality changes5

The Results Are in: Doctors Rock Recovery

There are many programs available to physicians who are struggling with opioid addiction — institutional, local and statewide programs designed to actively treat and rehabilitate medical professionals. With treatment and ongoing follow-up, there’s a great chance of recovery.

In fact, according to health service studies, physicians succeed in recovery at rates of 70-80 percent, which for addiction is very, very high.1

More state medical boards are looking at ways to ensure patient safety by keeping doctors in recovery at work under careful monitoring. “I’ve seen the recovery process return better doctors to productive practice,” Grinspoon adds, “strengthening the qualities most people want in a caregiver — humility, empathy and patience.”1

The bottom line? You can get treatment for your addiction — and might even return as a better physician than you were before.

Find Healing Tailored to Healthcare Professionals

At Talbott Recovery, we’ve helped over 6,000 professionals find their path to recovery. In fact, you could say we wrote the book on addiction treatment for healthcare professionals.

Our Professionals Treatment Program not only helps you take a giant step toward sobriety. We also work directly with monitoring agencies and state-specific boards to make sure you meet the requirements to get back to work after completing treatment.

Call our toll-free helpline today or contact us online to learn more about Talbott’s Healthcare Professionals Treatment Program and how we can help you find your way back to the life you’ve worked so hard to achieve.

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1 Grinspoon, Peter. “Up to 15% of Doctors Are Drug Addicts. I Was One of Them.” Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2016.
2 Marso, Andy. “How Do Docs Misusing Drugs Fit Into the Opioid Crisis? One Example Sheds Light.” The Kansas City Star, October 10, 2017.
3 Merlo, Lisa. J. “Reasons for Misuse of Prescription Medication Among Physicians Undergoing Monitoring by a Physician Health Program.” Journal of Addiction Medicine, September/October 2013.
4 Cummings, Simone Marie, et al. “Mechanisms of Prescription Drug Diversion Among Impaired Physicians.” Journal of Addictive Diseases, July 1, 2014.
5 Cassata, Cathy. “Is Your Doctor Addicted to Drugs?” The Fix, May 13, 2014.

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