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Tackling Substance Use Among Healthcare Workers

Clinician Support
06.11.2021

A medical professional’s line of work is rife with stress resulting from constant exposure to illness and death. Physicians, nurses, and mental health professionals are vulnerable to unhealthy coping mechanisms that are associated with chronic stress. It may be surprising to know that 1 in 10 medical professionals are susceptible to substance abuse. With more of our valued medical professionals turning to alcohol and drugs to cope, there comes a bigger question: how do we tackle the issue of substance use among healthcare workers?

Substance Use: A Long-Standing Problem in Healthcare

In addition to the challenges already faced by healthcare workers, the pandemic has made the situation worse,introducing heightened levels of anxiety and stress. Of the 10% of medical professionals cited earlier, nurses are particularly vulnerable, especially since 91 percent of RNs are female and are prone to fall into addiction more quickly than their male counterparts. This is particularly true for nurses who work in emergency rooms and intensive care units.

Substance abuse can be difficult to spot since it is progressive, eventually manifesting as an increased frequency of substance use, sleep issues, and unhealthy stress management habits, among other symptoms. This can lead to devastating consequences for patients and healthcare workers alike. Apart from pilfering prescription drugs, doctors have unintentionally harmed patients with wrong dosages administered under the influence, resulting in having their medical licenses stripped away and lawsuits filed.

With these realities threatening the safety of patients and the health of doctors, there is an urgent need to tackle the root of substance abuse in medical professionals.

Building a More Hopeful Future for Healthcare Workers

Creating a better environment that supports healthcare workers starts by acknowledging the gravity of the problems they face, and then providing concrete solutions to build a more hopeful future for these professionals.

1. Make Treatment More Accessible

Making rehab an accessible and affordable option for healthcare professionals should be a priority for hospitals and communities alike. The first priority for healthcare professionals with substance abuse problems is to step back from the stress of the working environment and rely on the capability of rehab teams, which include physicians and rehab nursing specialists. Nursing specialists, in particular, play a crucial role in this process and are quickly becoming among the most sought-after nursing careers today. Certified professionals choose a field to master and are then trained to specialize in specific areas of patient care, such as mental health and substance abuse. Rehab specialists work with a team of healthcare professionals to ensure the patient receives the best care possible.

It is these specialists that can help other physicians in need, as was the case for a Nebraska doctor who struggled with an opioid addiction. Dr. Jeffrey Fraser was eventually admitted to Talbott Recovery Services in Atlanta for a three-month rehabilitation program, where group therapy is used to heal isolation and loneliness experienced by professionals battling substance abuse. He recovered successfully and has since been working to get his license back before practicing again in North Carolina.

2. Provide Continuous Education on Addiction

While medical professionals are more knowledgeable in most matters concerning health, recognizing the signs of addiction in one’s own behavior can be tricky to do. Medical institutions can provide continuous learning opportunities via conferences and meetings that discuss the most recent findings on addiction. For instance, The Society of Addiction Psychology does this by hosting the annual Collaborative Perspectives On Addiction, where attendees can share and learn about the latest insights on substance abuse.

These gatherings can help healthcare workers, regardless of specialization, gain a more thorough understanding of addiction and how to prevent it. Even the most seasoned physicians are required to keep learning new developments in medicine, and this shouldn’t be limited to their specialization, especially with issues that may concern their wellbeing.

3. Strengthen Public Health Policies

While necessary, addressing these issues at the local level may not be sufficient, especially with limited resources. Legislation can make the biggest difference by creating policies that allot budgets for medical training, hospital programs, and mental health campaigns – this is something that the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act hoped to achieve.

Fortunately, specific provisions were included in the American Rescue Plan, including the prevention of burnout, behavioral disorders, and suicide in medical professionals. While some groups are urging for the inclusion of additional provisions to further strengthen investments in medical professionals’ wellbeing, this bill is still a step forward in tackling substance abuse among healthcare workers.

Substance abuse is a manifestation of the complex network of problems that exist in the healthcare industry. Solving it ultimately depends on strengthening the healthcare system as a whole. In the meantime, reducing the stigma around addiction and ensuring the wellness of as many healthcare workers as possible is one step in the right direction.