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Doctors and Addiction: How to Find Help as a Medical Professional

One profession that warrants global admiration and respect is our doctors – in many regards, they are viewed as heroes by the people they treat and save. With all they do, they are still amongst the most humble of us all, and in an op-ed, in the LA Times, one doctor describes them as “no better than the rest of you, but in some ways, far worse.”

The issues doctors face are backed up in a long list of statistics. Unfortunately, doctors are in a category where they’re more prone to drug and alcohol addiction than the general population. Generally speaking, the rate of addiction can be eight to ten percent in our population, while doctors face rates of 10 to 15 percent. The most likely reason is the stress they face, but plentiful access is another. 

Much has been discussed about physicians facing extreme anxiety, depression, and burnout. Doctors also face unprecedented levels of suicide that double the general population, and nearly one-sixth of primary doctors will give up their practices mid-career. Medicine is not an easy path, but in today’s world, these heroes are working longer, faster, and receiving less for their work. Physicians that were interviewed admitted if they could start over, they would choose another career path. 

The Journal of Addiction Medicine released a study showing that 69 percent of doctors abused prescription drugs to relieve stress or physical and emotional pain. Although the medicine might reduce their ailment in the short-term, the temptation becomes too much to resist and causes severe long-term issues. Given the nature of how addictive these drugs are, it’s been described as putting out a fire using gasoline. 

Access to prescription painkillers such as fentanyl and oxycodone is unlimited, and drug companies will send doctors free samples. Patients also bring in unused medication to be disposed of, making it all too easy to use. Other colleagues may also write prescriptions as a courtesy, while others may use their own prescription pads, despite its legality. 

Unfortunately, another issue that physicians face is how challenging it is to seek help. Although we’ve worked to reduce the stigma attached to drugs in the general population, doctors and addiction are still taboo. A doctor might fear losing their license, or even worse, prosecution, causing them to keep their addictions in the dark. With that said, they might wonder how to find help as a medical professional. Below, we’ll examine those steps. 

Doctors and Addiction: They Must Be Met With Compassion

If a doctor begins falling into the throes of addiction, it’s unlikely they’ll seek help. Despite being filled with knowledgeable professionals, a medical board typically treats addiction like a crime rather than a disease when it comes to one of their own. Doctors facing addiction is a frightening topic that requires compassion. By stigmatizing addiction, it will force doctors to remain in the shadows and deal with addiction alone. It could lead to a worst-case scenario of showing up to the operating room under the influence. 

If you’re worried about a colleague, friend, or loved one, it’s important to understand the signs of doctors and addiction. Medical professionals might do a better job of hiding it than others because of their knowledge, but eventually, symptoms will prevail and cause significant issues in their lives. 

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Doctors and Addiction: What Are the Signs?

As was mentioned above, doctors that become dependent on drugs are resistant to these signs because they’re highly functional users. Determining if a doctor is dependent on prescription or illicit drugs or alcohol is challenging because they can maintain their careers, home life, and abuse for extended periods without anyone knowing. 

If you’re concerned about potential drug or alcohol abuse in doctors, the most common signs include:

  • Small pupils
  • Frequent bathroom breaks
  • Outward anxiety about working overtime
  • Frequent job changes
  • Preferring one shift over another because of less supervision and easy access to medicine
  • Enthusiastically volunteering to administer narcotics to patients
  • Unexplained absences
  • Strong odor of alcohol
  • Financial problems
  • Unusual relationships with other doctors who prescribe narcotics
  • Excessive use of breath mints, mouthwash, or anything else to mask odors
  • Excessive errors in paperwork

The Effects of Workplace Addiction

Doctors possess a great deal of responsibility when compared to the general population. When they take risks like using potent prescription medications and practicing medicine, their consequences can be catastrophic by causing permanent damage or death. Since doctors are held in such high regard, their actions are held to a higher standard. By abusing drugs or alcohol, it limits their ability to perform significant tasks. 

Alcohol and drug addiction cause a person to be selfish without knowledge of doing so, and doctors don’t only put their health at risk, they put all of the families they treat in harm’s way. In many cases, these doctors might not accept they’ve developed an addiction, but eventually, they must face these issues head-on by getting the help they need. By doing this, they could prevent accidents or permanently hurt one of their patients. 

A Doctor addicted to pills pouring some into his hand

How to Find Help As A Medication Professional

Doctors save lives, and because of this, they’re highly regarded for what they do. Despite their achievements and superhero appearance, they’re still prone to addiction, which is a disease affecting all socioeconomic backgrounds. No matter your zip code, you can develop the condition. However, there is a silver lining, and with the advances in medicine and addiction studies, the quality of treatment programs has increased dramatically. 

Many states throughout the country cater to doctors recovering from addiction. These programs work to ensure the doctor being treated won’t lose their practice or license. This is crucial for medical professionals struggling with the disease, so it doesn’t act as a barrier to getting help. These specialized programs help doctors during the recovery process and provide them with tools for avoiding triggers once they return to work. 

The following is the most important areas that will be addressed in treatment for doctors:

  • How the doctor will return to their professional lives
  • Restoring their reputation
  • Address disciplinary issues they’re facing
  • Participate in monitoring programs
  • Learning to avoid triggers in and out of the workplace
  • Establishing a plan for after-care

In the past, medical professionals felt pessimistic about their future when it came to treating addiction. Today, despite the growing numbers of addiction, the right kind of help is available. Although doctors experience the disease at a higher rate than the general population, they also boast higher rates of maintaining their sobriety once treatment is completed. 

The higher levels of success are because staff members are familiar with treating medical professionals and empathize with the unique challenges they face. The staff will work alongside these doctors to get to the root cause of addiction. If you’re a medical professional who needs help, it’s time to reach out today. You know better than anyone the issues it can cause, and you have the power to get back into control today.


NPR (July 2018) When Doctors Struggle With Suicide, Their Profession Often Fails Them. Retrieved from

LA Times (June 2016) Up To 15% Of Doctors Are Drug Addicts – I Was One Of Them. Retrieved from

MedScape (January 2014) Drug Abuse Among Doctors: Easy, Tempting, and Not Uncommon. Retrieved from DEA (November 2020) Oxycodone. Retrieved from

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