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Alcohol Abuse In Health Care 

Given the emotional and physical pressures placed upon health care professionals, many are turning to alcohol and other substances to cope with their work. As much as 15% of health care professionals abuse alcohol during their careers. While these rates are akin to the general population, the concern falls on the fact that medical professionals are the caregivers responsible for the health and well-being of the general population. In order to provide the best care to the public, medical professionals must first take the time to reflect and care for themselves. Alcohol abuse threatens the health of the medical professional and impacts the level of care patients receive.

Why Do Medical Professionals Turn To Alcohol?

The nature of work in the medical field is often unpredictable and exhausting, requiring medical professionals to work on “all cylinders” regardless of their limitations. Add on a nation-wide labor shortage leaving many hospitals critically understaffed, and you’ll find many in the medical community feeling burnout. According to a study by BMJ Journals, occupational distress increases the odds of doctors using substances, including alcohol. In this report, 44% of doctors binge drank, and 5% met the criteria for alcohol dependence.

According to research by BMJ Journal, doctors and nurses often have difficulty “turning off” their minds at the end of their shift, with 6 in 10 doctors thinking of their work when they go to bed. This lack of mental boundary between work and rest leaves many medical professionals constantly feeling “on” and using alcohol as an outlet. Additionally, health care professionals are countlessly making split-second, informed decisions concerning their patient’s health and well-being. If an adverse outcome were to come from a medic’s decision, they might feel immense responsibility, leading to guilt and regret that may drive them to use alcohol. 

Pandemic-Related Pressures

There was not much to prepare health care professionals for the understaffing, overworking, and massive loss of life that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many found the conditions too much to bear with an uptick of alcohol use rising since the beginning of the pandemic among medical professionals, especially doctors. In a 2021 report by Medscape, roughly 42% of doctors reported experiencing symptoms of burnout, and more than a quarter of respondents said they drank alcohol to cope with these symptoms. Besides burnout, many nurses and doctors reported feelings of stress, anxiety, frustration, and depression, influencing some to self-medicate with alcohol. 

Symptoms Of An Alcohol Use Disorder Among Medical Professionals 

Recognizing alcohol abuse or dependence among health care professionals can be difficult for multiple reasons. For one, the same personality traits that aid a medical professional in their work, like high drive or perfectionism, may also help hide their alcohol abuse from their colleagues and supervisors. Additionally, many medical professionals fear losing their license if they self-report or a colleague reports their concerns. However, for an individual to receive the treatment they need, it is essential to recognize the signs or symptoms of alcohol abuse. The following signs can help indicate that a healthcare professional is struggling with alcohol abuse:

  • Repeatedly arriving to work late 
  • Difficulty meeting deadlines
  • Errors in controlled substance records
  • Dishonesty
  • Documentation errors
  • Excessive sick time
  • Frequent mistakes
  • Frequent unexplained absences
  • Mood changes
  • Paranoia
  • Poor charting
  • Poor quality work

Patient Care Under The Influence 

One pressing concern for medical professionals abusing alcohol is how their condition impacts their work and ability to care for patients. Without proper identification and treatment for an alcohol use disorder (AUD), a healthcare professional’s impairment can result in a patient’s injury or worse. Impairment is the inability or impending inability to practice according to accepted standards due to substance use, abuse, or dependency. Impairment often goes unreported because health care professionals may not admit they have a problem, they may self-diagnose and self-treat, and their colleagues may be fearful of reporting them in fear of reprisal.

Beyond imparting potential harm onto themselves, medical professionals experiencing alcohol abuse can place their patients at risk by not providing proper care. The general population looks to healthcare professionals for all levels of care, and alcohol abuse negatively impacts trust between patient and practitioner. In order to avoid potentially lethal mistakes, medical professionals must evaluate their relationship with alcohol and receive help if needed. 

Treatment Options For Medical Professionals 

Medical professionals who struggle with alcohol abuse or dependence often fear losing their license, leading to lower self-reporting rates. Given the type of work medical professionals perform, it may not be feasible to leave work for a couple of months, or even a couple of weeks, to receive treatment at an inpatient rehab. However, there are statutes in place that can connect professionals with peer-assisted treatment programs while still practicing under supervision until they complete treatment. 

Treatment programs include intensive outpatient rehab, residential treatment, partial hospitalization, and institutional programs. Outpatient rehab allows medical professionals to receive regular treatment without disrupting their family, school, or work schedules, and they can return to work after the treatment is complete. Residential programs, like inpatient rehab, are located in hospitals or specialized facilities, and medical withdrawal or detoxification is the first treatment step. Partial hospitalization programs are similar to outpatient rehabs as an individual will not stay overnight, but they will receive regular treatment sessions several times a week. An employer can mandate that an individual complete their treatment program to retain their license, and institutional programs can include education and referral to treatment centers. Since substance abuse is common within the healthcare field, understanding and recognizing the signs of substance abuse is integral to the health of professionals and their patients. 

Finding Help

In a field where medical professionals care for and treat others, they may neglect their own needs and health. There are multiple resources available to healthcare professionals, ranging from individual personal services to services provided by institutions or state-mandated. In a selfless career like health care, it is important for medical professionals to administer the level of care they impart onto others to themselves. If you or a loved one is considering treatment for alcohol abuse, contact a treatment provider for more information and options for care.

  • Author: Carmen McCrackin | Last Updated: May 10, 2022

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    Carmen McCrackin

    Carmen McCrackin earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Auburn and has over 3 years of professional writing experience. Her passion for writing and educating others led her to a career in journalism with a focus on mental health and social justice topics. Her main mission is to be a platform for all voices and stories, and to provide tangible resources to those seeking recovery for themselves or loved ones.

  • Medical Reviewer: David Hampton

  • Sources