Medical Professionals, Substance Problems and Related Issues

Doctors and Drug AbuseMedical professionals have stressful jobs, and depending upon their specialties, they can have high-stress jobs every minute they are at work. Paramedics and emergency room personnel in urban areas, for example, routinely face a very different work shift than general practitioners in a rural clinic setting. However, all medical personnel share common work hazards no matter where they practice, and the chronic stress of their professions can put them at risk for substance problems.

Medical Professionals and Compassion Fatigue

A common occupational hazard among medical professionals is compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a type of burnout specific to caring for others who are in distress. It occurs among caregivers of all types, in professional settings and in the home.  Dr. Charles Figley of the Tulane Traumatology Institute describes compassion fatigue as an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped…

The symptoms of compassion fatigue are physical, mental, emotional, behavioral and even spiritual. For example:

  • Physical fatigue
  • Poor self-care
  • Physical ailments
  • Flat mood or apathy
  • Lack of pleasure
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Lack of patience
  • Mood swings
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Poor concentration
  • Excessive complaining, blaming
  • Absenteeism
  • Feelings of helplessness and powerlessness
  • Expecting negative outcomes
  • Feeling efforts are futile
  • Inability to envision a positive future
  • Social isolation
  • Loss of spirituality and faith
  • Substance use and other compulsive behaviors

Secondary and Primary Trauma and Medical Professionals

Trauma is an ever-present risk for medical professionals. Their patients are distressed, and some are in life-threatening situations. Also, tragically, patients die from injuries or illnesses while under care. Consequently, medical professionals are at risk for two types of trauma. They can have what is known as primary trauma, meaning they are directly traumatized by what they encounter such as overwhelming medical events in which there are severe injuries, catastrophic illness, and/or a frantic effort to save someone’s life.

Medical professionals are also vulnerable to what is known as secondary trauma. Essentially, this is being traumatized by someone else’s trauma. Professionals who must learn about horrific events, for example, such as a homicide attempt, suicide attempt, or rape experienced by their patients, can be traumatized by the secondhand details.

The Pressures of Career Responsibilities

Medical professionals carry a great deal of responsibility in their jobs, no matter at what level they work. Ultimately, medical personnel are responsible for the well-being of others, and frequently, the lives of others. While this is a given in these professions, it does account for a chronic level of stress in these careers.

Also, increasingly, the limits of healthcare resources and funding place additional burdens upon healthcare professionals. They often must work with limited resources or more patients than can be easily accommodated. Funds are not always available for patients who need certain forms of care, for example, and insurance companies make many demands for tight monetary control. Â

Overall, these types of stressors contribute to the compassion fatigue professionals experience and can result in other stressful patterns such as:

  • Staff turnover
  • Workplace dissatisfaction
  • Conflict between staff members
  • Poor productivity
  • Disregard of policies and procedures
  • Hostility in the workplace

Compounded Stress and Medical Professionals

Medical professionals can find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of unrelenting stress. And, the stress can bounce back and forth between the professional and the private life. The stressors of the job can impact the personal life, for example, and distress in one’s personal life can impact job performance. Distressed medical professionals can find themselves without respite from stress at home or on the job, and feel unable to remedy a spiraling and chronically stressful life overall.

Looking for Relief from the Stress

Medical professionals dealing with the type of issues described above can find themselves looking for quick relief. Busy schedules can leave little regular time for relaxation, and high-intensity jobs can leave one unable to easily wind down after work. These things lead to vulnerability to substance abuse. Intoxication guarantees temporary and quick relaxation and can easily become go-to for many professionals working in chronically stressful situations.

The self-medicating aspects of substance use always pose a high risk of developing a substance problem. In self-medication, one relies on substance use as a significant life coping strategy and as a band-aid for an underlying problem. Consequently, healthier coping strategies are not developed, and the underlying problems continue unresolved. Relief is felt in the moment of substance use, but the underlying problems are simply suppressed by substances.

Medical Professionals, Substance Problems, and Secrecy

Medical professionals are credentialed and their right to practice is governed by credentialing boards and laws applicable to their professions. Many healthcare professionals are reluctant to disclose their substance problems because they fear professional repercussions such as suspended or revoked licenses. However, there are provisions for professionals with addictive illnesses, and it is accepted in these professions that members are vulnerable to the illnesses everyone else is. Professionals who endanger patients while using, or commit crimes related to an addictive illness, however, may face heavy professional sanctions as well as legal ones.

A good deal of the secrecy among addicted medical professionals is shame and stigma related, just as it is among other groups of people at large. There is still a great deal of misinformation about addiction, such as the belief that addiction is a moral failing rather than an illness. Medical professionals rely on reputation and their patients’ trust. Having an addiction leaves many such professionals afraid that their reputations will be ruined, and their patients will no longer trust them even if they are in recovery.

Medical Professionals and Addictive Drug Access

Many medical professionals have direct access to addictive substances that are to be administered to patients. Diverting such medications to personal use is possible and can cause a multitude of rippling effects. For example, patients are deprived of their medications, and addicted professionals can practice while under the influence. Also, the ability to practice their professions is endangered as they commit both illegal and unethical acts while diverting opioid addictionmedications to their own use, and stand to lose credentials. Finally, the potential for poor care, malpractice and even lost lives can be great.

Medical Professionals Seeking Addiction Treatment

It can be difficult to go to rehab when you are a medical professional. Many choose to seek treatment outside the area in which they practice. This affords them greater privacy and confidentiality and clears treatment barriers for those who do not feel comfortable seeking treatment from colleagues and in facilities where they are known. If these are concerns for you, we can help you find treatment options that will protect your personal and professional privacy.

Impaired Professionals Programs

Credentialing boards such as those for medicine and nursing will work with license holders throughout treatment and after. The specific requirements will be unique to the area and type of credential you hold. There are, for example, treatment programs for impaired professionals. These provide a level of privacy and confidentiality professionals need. They also provide a therapeutic setting in which all participants have similar concerns, making the group experiences far more beneficial and cohesive.

If you or a loved one are looking for such a treatment setting, we can help you find the right fit. We provide a free consultation service in which we help identify your treatment needs and find appropriate options to meet your professional needs as well. We’ve worked hard to research treatment programs in many regions and have an extensive database of information from which to draw our recommendations. We understand the special needs of medical professionals who need treatment and will be glad to help you find the area, the treatment philosophy and the amenities you prefer. We will also clarify your insurance coverage, and make sure our recommended programs accept your insurance.

If You Still Have Doubts

If you still are ambivalent about going to treatment, you may want to talk with trusted family members, friends and colleagues about your situation. It is always helpful to have the feedback of people you trust. Naturally, you will have concerns about the impact of going to treatment upon your professional life. It is helpful to research the information provided by your credentialing boards and to speak with trusted colleagues, teachers or mentors about your concerns. If you are like most, you will find that you have more support and more options than you have imagined.

It is always difficult to acknowledge a substance problem. Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of shame attached to an addictive illness, and it is set apart in our minds from other types of illnesses. However, keep in mind that no one chooses when to be ill enough for treatment, and when treatment is indicated, it’s time to pursue it.

We have helped many people in your situation find the help they need, and we’ve helped them navigate the obstacles to getting help. Remember, you’ve carried a lot on your shoulders and it is your time to regroup. Your ability to resume work depends upon the plan you put into action. It may be time to turn your care to yourself. What would you advise a patient to do? That is probably good advice for you, too.

There are solutions, and this is your world, too. Your talent, skills and chosen profession do not give you immunity. In fact, they create vulnerability in this case. Recovery is more than possible. If you put yourself in the right place with the right help, you can overcome your addiction and resume a healthy, productive life. If we can help you in any way, give us a call. You can begin your solution today.