Health professionals are not immune to drug addiction
As if working in the healthcare field weren’t already stressful, overwhelming and at times downright depressing, the COVID-19 pandemic has added tremendous pressure to already overworked medical staff. They witnessed unspeakable tragedy and loss of life on a scale they could not be prepared for. As a result, many face increasing mental health issues.
Unfortunately, this perfect storm puts these essential workers at enormous risk for developing Substance Use Disorder (SUD). In addition to stress and burnout, healthcare professionals also have a unique “advantage”: easy access to medication. Whether through self-prescription, prescription fraud, or just hospital or office drug diversion, opioids, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, and many other medications are readily available.
I know because I’ve been there. Thanks to an old injury that was causing lingering pain, coupled with the stress of running a busy surgery practice while also being the head of the surgical department at a large metro hospital, I turned to opioids for self-medication. .
When my use got out of hand, I knew I needed help, but I was scared – scared of facing disciplinary action, scared of losing my license, scared of losing my job and whatever else I could do. had worked so hard. The shame was overwhelming; I was afraid anyone would find out.
Looking back, I should have been more afraid of making a mistake, hurting someone (or worse) or going to jail.
I’ve learned that there is in fact a reasonable and fair system that allows professionals with disabilities to get the help they need, while helping to protect jobs and medical licenses.
If you are a healthcare professional with SUD and are afraid to come forward like I was, there are several things you need to know that will make it easier for you to seek help.
You don’t have it under control. One of the downsides of having medical knowledge and experience with drugs is that it tends to lower your level of fear of using them. Because you understand how they work, it’s easy to feel like you know what you’re doing – and fool yourself into thinking you’re somehow better equipped to handle chronic use without getting hooked. This is a dangerous and false assumption. In fact, studies show that healthcare professionals are more likely to become dependent on prescriptions than the general population, and any use beyond medical necessity is cause for concern.
No one is there to have you. When I first came into contact with my state’s monitoring agency, I suspected that they were just trying to dirty me and report me to the Department of Health. I had no idea that they were actually there to help me, to provide me with a process through which I could both overcome my addiction and keep my job. Paranoia and denial can go hand in hand with addiction, so if someone tells you they are concerned about your behavior and offers you help, know that they are really worried and not looking. to destroy your reputation. The damage you could do to yourself by continuing to use is much worse.
Self-declaration is the best option. Reporting yourself to the state watchdog is a critical first step. As much as they are there to protect patients, they are also there to protect you. They will help you get on a recovery program and work with your employer to keep your job by showing that you are taking steps to seek treatment. Taking medical time off for a treatment program is no different from taking time off because you’ve had a heart attack or cancer. I urge you, please don’t wait for someone to report you to your employer or the board of health. The consequences are much worse. Being proactive shows that you want to keep doing what you love, and your monitoring agency and employer will be much more accommodating.
The consequences of not getting help are almost universally worse than not showing up. I was terribly afraid that someone would find out that I was addicted to opioids. I was concerned about damaging my reputation, my business and my career. But the consequences of not getting help are much worse. If you experience an adverse event or injure someone – even though it was potentially unavoidable and under normal circumstances it would not be questioned – it can be disastrous if you are found to be impaired. At the very least, you could face extremely high malpractice judgments or worse, manslaughter charges. In the state of Florida, a DUI felony charge could mean the loss of your license for up to 15 years. A simple possession charge, which for opioids could be as low as 14 to 15 pills, carries a 5-year license suspension sentence. In either case, you don’t even need to be convicted to undergo these penalties. Not to mention that these are in addition to criminal penalties, which could go up to 25 years in prison. Without a doubt, the repercussions of getting help are exponentially less than the risk of getting caught.
There are programs just for you. Many people fear that treatment centers are filled with stereotypical, often commercialized characters as seen on television. But the reality is that many are people like you and me: professionals with families and busy social schedules who have become another statistic in a disease that does not discriminate. In fact, many facilities now offer programs specifically for licensed professionals or first responders designed to work in conjunction with oversight agencies to help you safeguard your license and career. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a look of tremendous relief from a new patient when I tell them I’m recovering. Their guard drops immediately and it facilitates an open dialogue when they realize this is a safe space where they can share and get help without judgment.
Today, thousands of healthcare professionals are grappling with the stress and anxiety of a year of unprecedented challenges. If you are one of them, you may be thinking that there is no way you can take time off for help during this crisis. But the truth is, if you are working under the influence, you could be more of a responsibility than an asset for your patients, your employer, and yourself.
There is no shame in admitting that you need help. There are systems in place to help you keep your job and your license. Get help to keep doing the job you love.
Forrest Arthur, MD, is a former addiction medicine researcher at the River Oaks Treatment Center, an American facility of addiction centers.