Nurses Nationwide Increasingly Disciplined for Drug, Alcohol Violations

We all know that nobody is immune to becoming an addict. The nation’s opioid crisis has proven that.

But why is it that people in the nursing profession – those providing frontline care to the sick and among the most admired professionals in America – appear to be even more susceptible to it?

Perhaps the more important question is this: Is our very own healthcare system failing nurses in so many ways that it is fueling addiction among these trusted stewards of good health?

Perhaps the more important question is this: Is our very own healthcare system failing nurses in so many ways that it is fueling addiction among these trusted stewards of good health?
The answer appears to be yes.

News reports of nurses being disciplined for drug and alcohol abuse have been sprouting like weeds on the long well-manicured front lawn of healthcare. On November, 6 Action News of Pennsylvania found that three out of four nurses disciplined in that state face such consequences because of drug- and alcohol-related offenses – from stealing the pills of patients crying out in pain to coming to work intoxicated.

“And over the past 12 months, the number has exploded,” per Action News, which reported a 28 percent increase in suspensions during the past year.1 Action News uncovered a total of 881 drug and alcohol violations during the past three years.

Two of the reasons why this is happening are obvious. First, nursing is hard, stressful work. The other reason? Nurses have easy access to narcotic medications.

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Nurses Reluctant to Tattle on Coworkers Who Drink, Use Drugs

Other reasons are less obvious. Consequences for nurses for drug- and alcohol-related offenses aren’t as tough as you might expect. This should not come as a surprise during an acute shortage of nurses nationwide.

Furthermore, most nurses don’t want to narc out a coworker, and some nurses believe they cannot afford proper treatment.
In an investigation, the News-Leader of Virginia reported that between 2007 and mid-2013 900 nurses were disciplined by the state’s licensing board for either drug theft or use at work.2 Further, they found Virginia does not perform background checks on nurses. It’s difficult to catch nurses who are abusing or stealing drugs because other nurses don’t want to blow the whistle, the paper reported.

A February 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing reported, “Addiction among nurses has been recognized by professionals in the field for over 100 years, and current estimates place rates of substance abuse, misuse, abuse and addiction rates as high as 20 percent among practicing nurses. Unfortunately, fear of punishment and discipline may keep nurses or students from asking for help for themselves or from reporting a colleague or friend who is in need of help.”3

The paper concluded, “Poor or ineffective policies that mandate punitive action endanger the public by making it difficult for impaired students or professionals to ask for help. Providing early intervention and assistance is essential in helping colleagues and students recovery from an addictive disorder and providing a non-punitive atmosphere of support may well be a life-saving first step for nurses and those in their care.”

Early Intervention Among Nurses with Substance Abuse Disorder a Must

The News-Leader investigation showed that the non-punitive programs only work, however, when the nurses are offered support groups with other nurses that keep them on track. Virginia lacks such a program.

Also, as the study stated, intervention needs to be early. Giving nurses who use drugs at work or steal them too many chances is detrimental to success, the newspaper found.
“Florida’s hidden asset is a statewide network of 150 support groups for its nurses in intervention that increases retention in the program,” the News-Leader reported. “For about $30 a year – waived if you’re unemployed – a nurse can join a group and get support from others who’ve been through it.”

Pennsylvania nurse Gerry Dolan, a former addict, told Action News at one point she was taking 20 Ativan per day to deal with the rigors of the job (Ativan, while a benzodiazepine used for anxiety, has been known to energize some patients). “It would give me energy,” Dolan said. “I could get through my day. I could perform my tasks.”

People who work in professions that cause stress and anxiety need to learn to manage that stress without drugs and alcohol. Treatment that focuses on addressing the root of a co-occurring mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression, allows a person to have a more lasting recovery with less chance of relapse.

Alcoholic in Recovery Finds New Career in Nursing

Tarra O. is a recovering alcoholic who also is a nurse. But her story has a twist. Tarra went through great trauma, which fueled her drinking. But once she regained stability in her life through proper treatment, became sober and learned to manage triggers and heal from trauma, it opened doors to greater things professionally. She became an RN.

“I love sobriety,” she writes on the recovery community site Heroes in Recovery. “You could have never convinced me that this would be the case while I was drinking. My life has never been better and it keeps getting better. I can feel pain, anger, hurt, and fear without drinking. Life is meant to be experienced, and I have been blessed to be an alcoholic!”

In a 2005 article published in AORN Journal, the study’s author reported that the prevalence of substance abuse in nursing is about the same as it is in the general population (at the time about 10 percent). “Nurses with substance abuse problems need help,” wrote RN Debra Dunn, nurse manager of the operating room at St. Joseph’s Wayne Hospital in Wayne, New Jersey.4 “They are in danger of harming patients, the facility’s reputation, the nursing profession, and themselves. The consequences of not reporting concerns can be far worse than those of reporting the issue.”

Most states do not require nurses to report other nurses, although many encourage it as an “ethical” responsibility.

In a survey published in Modern Medicine, nurses were asked, “Do you believe that your facility is too soft or too hard on nurses with drug problems?”

Responded one nurse: “I believe that healthcare professionals are in a unique and privileged position to have access to narcotics. We should be fiercely protecting patients from healthcare professionals who are high on drugs, as they are impaired and cannot provide a high level of care.”

Another said nurses battling addiction should be treated “like human beings with an illness rather than as criminals. A little compassion, my friends … We have all stumbled and fallen short.”5

Written by David Heitz

1 Pradelli, C. (2016, Nov. 1). Nurse shares story of drug addiction. 6 Action News of Philadelphia. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2016, from
2 Borns, P. (2014, December). Investigation: Addicted nurses steal patients’ drugs. News-Leader of Virginia. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2016, from
3 Monroe, T. et al. (2011, February). 20 (3-4). 504-509. Don’t ask, don’t tell: Substance abuse and addiction among nurses. Journal of Clinical Nursing. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2016, from
4 Dunn, D. Substance Abuse Among Nurses: Defining the Issue. (2005, October). 82 (4). 572-575, 577-582, 585-588, 592-596. AORN Journal. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2016, from
5 Copp, M. (2009, April 1). Drug addiction among nurses: Confronting a quiet epidemic. Modern Medicine Network. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2016, from

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