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Physician drug use and suicides spotlighted in recent media reports


The continued pressures of working in the healthcare industry may be causing more than 100,000 of the nation's physicians, nurses, and other practitioners to develop substance abuse problems.

Physicians’ jobs are becoming more difficult, as increased government mandates, insurance red tape, and tighter budgets for independent practitioners lead to working longer hours for smaller rewards. A troubling result of this added stress is that more healthcare workers are at risk for substance abuse, depression, and even suicide, according to recent media reports.

The continued pressures of working in the healthcare industry may be causing more than 100,000 of the nations physicians, nurses, and other practitioners to develop substance abuse problems, according to a report by USA Today. The report estimates that 1 in 10 practitioners will have drug or alcohol issues at some point in their lives.

Rehabilitation programs for healthcare workers are underutilized, according to several estimates of substance abusers. State-run programs aim at enrolling 1% to 3% of practitioners, though actual enrollment is often much lower, the newspaper reports.

For example, in 2007, California had 126,000 licensed physicians, but only 250 in substance abuse treatment programs. The fact that healthcare workers can hide substance abuse problems because of a lack of drug testing, surveillance, and disciplinary actions could be worsening the problem. Experts say it’s a delicate balance between helping physicians with their problems, finding them guilty of crimes, and keeping patients safe.

“We certainly see gaps in the system; the examples are many," Joseph Perz, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told USA Today. "We recognize that addiction is a disease and we recognize the value in … (rehabilitating) a provider. At the same time, we need to be thinking about the potential harm to patients. That balance is difficult."

Other gaps in professional development for healthcare workers leave them with minimal access to mental health and other resources to help them cope with stress that starts in medical school.

Earlier this year, CNN reported on CDC data that found that the three professions with the highest suicide rates were dentists, pharmacists, and physicians. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that up to 400 physicians commit suicide each year, and that medical students have depression rates 15% to 30% higher than the general population.

An article titled, How Being a Doctor Became the Most Miserable Profession, published April 14 on TheDailyBeast.com, garnered more than 3,500 comments on a Reddit.com thread, many from healthcare workers and medical students who say 24-hour shifts, high levels of student loan debt, and career uncertainty have caused them to use prescription drugs to keep up with day-to-day pressures.

In a Medical Economics survey of nearly 5,000 physicians conducted last year, approximately 84% said that the financial state of their practice was the same or worse than the year before. About half of the internists and 43% of family practitioners surveyed said that if they could go back in time, they would change their specialty or career.

As the pressure continues to mount for healthcare workers due to larger patient loads, more administrative responsibilities, and dwindling pay, an unfortunate side effect could be the quality of their mental health-and even their lives.


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