Drug Use and Addiction in the Medical Community
- House is a gruff but ultra-competent doctor who manages to save his patients’ lives while popping Vicodin like tic-tacs.
- Nurse Jackie can snort pain killers in the staff bathroom in one minute, and still manage to intubate a combative patient in the next.
While it is true that House got into trouble for forging prescriptions, and the season finale of Nurse Jackie had her getting caught by police with a suitcase full of stolen drugs, both shows skim the surface on the reality of addiction within the medical community.
Drug Abuse in the Medical Community
The biggest issue is that drug abuse in the medical community is more widespread than people realize. According to USA Today, more than 100,000 healthcare professionals abuse prescription drugs each year, while they are treating patients. Because many of these professionals work in settings where they have ready access to drugs, many of them get their drugs through a process called drug diversion, where they steal drugs that are intended for patients. Advances in drug dispensing technology can curb the practice, however if they alter patient records to change dosages or pill quantities, or simply work hard to hide what they are doing, they can often divert drugs unnoticed for quite some time.
Medical professionals who do not have ready access to drugs could resort to forged prescriptions, and even to purchasing drugs through more “traditional” means. Drug abuse within the medical community can go unnoticed for quite some time and for a variety of reasons:
- The abuse starts off small and medical professionals remain largely functional throughout most of the early stages of the addiction;
- Changes in behavior could be attributed to work stress or other factors;
- People become adept at hiding their drug diverting activities; and,
- Other staff can be unknowingly complicit.
For example, a nurse with access to the drug dispensing machine might get a dose of painkillers for a patient, but steal have the pills for herself. If she dispenses the medication to the patient when no one is watching, no one will know that the patient didn’t get all of his medication, and the patient is not likely to know how much he is supposed to get. If the patient complains that the pain medication isn’t working, he might get another dose from a different nurse, or the medical staff might just assume that the patient is exhibiting drug-seeking behavior and ignore his request. Often people in the medical setting don’t realize that their colleague has a problem until the addiction starts to affect his work, or they can see clear signs of a problem such as:
- Excessive absences from work;
- Declines in work performance and record keeping;
- Higher incidents of drug “wastage” on the part of the medical professional;
- A tendency to over prescribe or over-dispense narcotic drugs;
- Changes in behavior; and,
- Patient complaints about painkillers not lasting long enough or working properly whenever dispensed or administered by a specific person.
Why Medical Professionals Become Addicted
Medical professionals can develop addiction for a variety of reasons. Some develop an addiction after being prescribed pain killers for an injury they got on the job, or to treat a medical condition — in House’s case, he started taking Vicodin to treat the pain from the infarction in his leg. Others might start using stimulant drugs as a means of coping with the long hours and little sleep that usually comes with working in a hospital setting.
There are also those who use drugs to cope with the emotional and mental stress of working in a life or death situation, or to “come down” after a long day in the trenches. Of course, there are also those who simply use for recreational purposes and become addicted. They then continue to use to avoid or manage their withdrawal symptoms so that they continue to function in their jobs.
Drug addiction has a certain stigma attached to it, and that stigma can be even worse for medical professionals. Because these people are responsible for the lives and others, seeking treatment for drug addiction could be a career-ending act. As a result, medical professionals might be less likely to seek help, even while they are aware that their addiction could have serious consequences.
There is also the issue that some medical professionals might feel that because they have medical knowledge, they don’t need outside help. That they can manage their addiction alone, and in silence, and they may even convince themselves that they don’t have a problem at all. Unfortunately, by not getting help they not only put their own health at risk, but that of their patients.
Some medical professionals can hide their addiction for years, all the while making little mistakes that negatively affect patient care – from incorrect medication dosages to missed entries on charts resulting in a lower standard of care.
The good news is that there is hope. There are private treatment options where medical professionals can get the help they need without ruining their careers. These programs not only help them deal with the addiction, they also help them to learn mechanisms for coping with on-the-job stress and with daily exposure and access to narcotic drugs. However, the key is in getting into treatment as soon as possible; for their own sake, and for the sake of their patients.
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