Why Doctors Get Addicted

Generally, medical doctors struggle with drug or alcohol addiction at similar or possibly slightly higher rates than the US population as a whole. It’s hard to get at the real numbers as physicians certainly have strong reasons not to be open about any substance use disorder (SUD) they may have. 

But if we look at Arwen Podesta’s simple formula for addiction presented in his book Hooked, a short guide to the mechanics of addiction, we have to note that physicians score strongly on two out of three of Dr. Podesta’s risk factors: biology (genetics and epigenetics) + stress (especially trauma) + drug availability = risk of addiction. 

Stressed Out

While genetic risk factors should not be much different from the general population, many doctors suffer from persistent extraordinary stress, brought on by long working hours and heavy patient loads, especially early in their careers. 

Another source of stress is having to deal with life-and-death situations. Caring for sick people can be highly rewarding if patients respond to treatment and get well. If doctors fail to relieve pain, however, or are unable to prevent the death of a human being, the result can be anxiety and depression for the attending physician. Very few doctors receive adequate training to deal with these stressors.

Research published in 2016 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 27 percent of medical students had depression or symptoms of depression, and 11 percent reported suicidal thoughts during medical school. Despite these alarming numbers, few medical students seek help from a healthcare provider. Some seek relief from drugs and alcohol instead. 

Easy Access

The second elevated risk factor is drug availability. Many doctors have relatively easy access to controlled substances as part of their daily practice. They have the ability to prescribe medications and they frequently receive free samples of medications from pharmaceutical companies. Some physicians manage to self-prescribe illegally for months or even years before being discovered. 

Three specialists in particular account for a significantly higher proportion of drug abuse than other specialties: anesthesiologists, emergency room specialists, and psychiatrists. This is because they regularly work with a variety of powerful medications that come with a high potential for misuse.

Physicians with addiction usually try to hide their substance misuse as long as possible because they have so much to lose professionally. But once they are facing career-ending consequences, doctors often become highly motivated recovery clients. If their drug abuse led to the suspension of their medical license, they can only be reinstated if they agree to go to treatment and submit to a regime of drug tests. If physicians chose a program designed to address their specific needs, their chance of recovery from the disease of addiction is exceptionally high. 

Professionals Program at Farley

The Farley Center at Williamsburg Place has a proud history of treating professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and airline pilots. Farley is recognized as one of the pioneering treatment facilities in the country helping licensed individuals with sophisticated defense mechanisms learn how to cope with life stressors without the use of drugs and alcohol.

Treating these individuals confidentially in a program addressing the specific needs of professionals can help ease the fear of disclosure and facilitates repairing damage incurred by substance-related behaviors. In order to build skills to deal with circumstances that surround demanding careers, the Farley team treats the substance use disorders and co-occurring conditions of professional patients comprehensively while acknowledging concerns regarding their professional status.