Substance Abuse Among Medical Providers: How Big is the Problem?

Medical providers- physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners- are certainly not immune to the world's problems.  Yes, patients would like to think that healthcare professionals are always sober, avoid mood altering medications and do not abuse prescription drugs.  However, working in the medical profession we know this is not the case.  Most of this substance abuse is well hidden.  You don't hear of your healthcare colleagues being admitted to inpatient opioid rehab centers.  So just how widespread is substance abuse among medical providers?

What is the Rate of Substance Abuse Among Physicians?

The rate of substance abuse among physicians, 8% to 12%, is consistent with the rate of abuse among the general public.  At any one time, about 7% of practicing physicians are active substance abusers.

Anesthesiologists have long been regarded as the medical providers most likely to abuse prescription medications.  They have frequent and less restricted access to addictive drugs.  Researchers estimate that the rate of opioid abuse among anesthesiologists is an astonishing 5 times that of the general population.  Physicians under the age of 35 were more likely to abuse opioids than the general population. One study found that Fentanyl was the most commonly abused medication.  Unfortunately, in 18% of anesthesia residents found to abuse medications a death or near death overdose was the initial indication of abuse.

What is the Rate of Substance Abuse Among Nurses?

The American Nurses Association estimates the rate if substance abuse among nurses is similar to that of physicians at about 10%.  With nearly 3 million nurses employed in the United States, this means 300,000 nurses are abusing drugs.  Nurses tend to abuse prescription medications at a rate higher than the general population and street drugs such as marijuana and cocaine at a lower rate.  The most frequently abused medications among nurses include amphetamines, opiates, sedatives, tranquilizers and inhalants.  One study found that rates of abuse among nurses varied by specialty.  Emergency room nurses are 3.5 times more likely to abuse cocaine or marijuana than those in general practice or pediatrics.  Oncology and administrative nurses are more likely to engage in binge drinking.

Although the rate of substance abuse among nursing and physician groups is consistent with that of the general population, this is unacceptable.  As healthcare professionals, we are placed in a position of trust by our patients.  Any lapse in our judgement or mistake made as a result of substance abuse has the potential to harm someone's life.  As nurse practitioners we must report suspected cases of abuse among our colleagues to our employers and state boards of nursing.

Is substance abuse a problem among providers in your workplace?