Health care professionals are placed in a highly stressful and volatile environment that allows them very little time to think about themselves. Because of the workforce shortages in the health care system, generally speaking, substance-induced impairment among some health care professions is anticipated to grow. 

Substance abuse rates for doctors and nurses account for one of the highest percentages of addiction in the workforce. A study released by USA Today in 2014 acknowledges that more than 100,000 doctors, nurses, medical technicians, and health care aides are abusing or dependent on prescription drugs in a given year. Unfortunately, the high number despite the shortages in this industry puts patients at very high risk of potential malpractice.

Anita Bertrand discusses a story about when she was supposed to administer narcotics to surgical patients, but she ended up stealing them and using the drugs intravenously in her ankle. The story highlights not knowing how many patients were put at risk, but how easy the whole process actually was. 

“I was absolutely impaired, using narcotics while working. No one ever noticed. Did I make mistakes? I don’t even know, that’s the scary part. I’m not aware of any, but I certainly would not say I was immune to that,” she said.

Bertrand’s story strokes a brush over a broader picture of abuse in this industry. Unlimited access to potent narcotics and high-risk environments is a recipe for disaster. 

The prescription drug epidemic has a long reach in the United States, and unfortunately, our doctors, nurses, and health care professionals are not exempt from what is happening. We view these individuals sometimes as superhuman and often discount the levels of stress and scrutiny they are always under. They can go from one high-stress situation to another with very little time to decompress. 

When a substance is available to mask their feelings, it’s understandable that they use given the circumstances, but that does not make it right. Oxycodone and fentanyl are the drugs of choice in this industry, and the knowledge they have and access make the problem especially hard to detect.

Doctors are informed consumers when it comes to health care and medications. They are keen on the dangers and risks when it comes to addictive medicines, but the abuse among health care professionals remains exceptionally high. When compared to the general public, however, abuse is no higher in health care professionals. The responsibility that is given to these health care professionals means that any impairment puts them at increased risk of errors, and they have their entire careers in jeopardy if they make one mistake.

Signs of Addiction Within Medical Professionals

Unfortunately, it is challenging to become conscious of the signs of dependence or addiction with medical professionals. Given their extensive knowledge about the topic, it gives them an edge in knowing how to hide their substance use very well. Health care professionals are considered to be highly functional drug users because they can maintain their careers, home life, and substance abuse for a period without others even becoming aware. Many people with addictions continue to perform at work, and they exist across all sectors, not just health care.

Signs of Addiction in Health Care Professionals Include:

  • Falling asleep on the job 
  • Frequent job changes
  • Requesting night shifts when there is less supervision and more access to medicine
  • Anxious behavior when asked to work overtime
  • Volunteering to administer narcotics to patients
  • Smelling of alcohol or excessive use of breath mints or mouthwash
  • Frequent bathroom breaks
  • Glassy eyes
  • Pinned pupils
  • A friendly relationship with doctors that prescribe medication
  • Continual errors in their paperwork

A common reason medical professionals will be tempted to abuse substances like oxycodone or fentanyl is the easy access they have to the potent medications. They also have a deep understanding of the effects the substances have on individuals and may motivate them to mimic the sensations themselves to get high.

What Causes Medical Professionals to Abuse Drugs or Alcohol?

Several factors can contribute to the abuse of drugs or alcohol. The stress of their jobs is the most apparent reason. Some of the most common causes include:

Drug Accessibility

Hospitals Are Ground Zero For Prescription Painkillers, Anti-Anxiety Medications, And Sedatives That Provide Relief From The Stress On The Job. Unfortunately, Someone Who Has Developed An Addiction Can Find Hospitals To Be The Place That Fuels Their Drug Use. Unlimited Access To Drugs Combined With Cravings That Relieve Stress Is Not The Right Combination. Workplace Access With Substances Makes These Professionals More Likely To Use Drugs When Access Is Increased. On Another Note, Someone Sober From Using Drugs May All Be Tempted To Use, Which Can Lead Them Down The Path To Relapse.


Health care professionals are looked at for emotional support on a daily basis from patients and their family members. The range of emotions that can be experienced on the job site can be guilt, anxiety, and despair as they walk from one room to another. 

They could go into one room and pronounce someone dead, and then walk into another and tell their family member they only have a few hours to live. They could follow this by telling someone their family is going to make it through with a full recovery. The roller coaster of emotions is enough to make anyone cringe. These individuals sometimes have to act as the therapist, the doctor, the nurse, the hero, and everything in between. 

Stress also can cause insomnia, and the medical profession can see shifts that range from 12 to 24 hours at a time. Sleep matters in their time off to recharge and reset, but stress can cause nervousness or depression, which causes an inability to sleep. It can factor into substance abuse because they begin using to rest or relax, and then it turns into a full-blown addiction. Health care professionals go from one emotionally tricky situation to another without so much as a minute to decompress, and substance use can relieve some of these internal battles.

How Can a Health Care Professional Get Help?

If addiction treatment is recommended, a holistic and personalized approach will be the best outcome.

There Will Need To Be a Plan That Is Catered to Their Specific Needs and Takes Into Consideration the Rigors of Their Career. Some of These Can Include:

  • Physical and mental health
  • Work history
  • Family relationships
  • Substances used
  • Gender

The Program Should Also Work To Include Individual Sessions With a Physician-Counselor or Nurse-Counselor to Address:

  • Career restoration
  • Professional practice and reputation
  • Licensing or disciplinary matters
  • Participation in monitoring programs
  • Continuing care

Addiction often comes with underlying factors such as mental health issues that relate to depression, anxiety, or trauma. A tailored approach must be taken to address addiction and mental health issues at the same time. It may be a difficult time and a long road ahead, but the hump can be overcome with the right therapy and ongoing care. If you are a health care professional and are looking for high-quality care, Serenity at Summit is the right place to get it.

Call Serenity at Summit for Help Today

Are you a health care professional struggling with a substance use disorder that no one knows about? Our addiction specialists at Serenity at Summit want to help you today. Our experts can help you transition into sobriety smoothly and mitigate the dangers associated with withdrawal to drugs or alcohol. We understand this is a difficult time for you, and want to help you in any way that we can and provide discreet care.

Let Serenity at Summit utilize our years of experience to treat your addiction and find the underlying causes that are pushing you to continue using substances despite the risks to your career. Our addiction specialists are ready to listen to your story right now. Feel free to give us a call 855-956-4940 or contact us online to learn more about how we can help.

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