How to Recognize the Signs of Addiction in Physicians By Brooke Powell
Substance abuse and addiction have become a significant problem for the general population of the United States. However, the issue of physician addiction has mostly escaped the public’s attention. This is not because physicians are immune to addiction, as they have been shown to have an addiction rate similar, if not higher, than that of the general population.
About 10 to 12 percent of physicians will develop a substance use disorder during their careers, according to the Mayo Clinic. Many of the physicians who struggle with substance abuse will typically get to a more advanced stage of the disease before it is identified. This may be because they feel they have extensive knowledge of the substance and therefore have control over their use, but this may not always be the case.
Warning Signs of Substance Abuse and Addiction
It is typical for people who abuse substances to try and hide their symptoms and downplay the problem. Physicians may go to extra lengths to mask their substance abuse symptoms, as they are under the constant pressure of a high-stress occupation, as well as feeling the need to keep up appearances.
The beginning signs of addiction tend to be more subtle than the symptoms individuals can display once they are in an active addiction cycle. Signs and symptoms may also vary due to individual biology and the substance, or combination of substances, being abused.
Physical warning signs of drug abuse can include:
bloodshot eyes and pinpoint pupils
changes in appetite and sleep patterns
deterioration of physical appearance, lack of personal grooming
runny nose or constant sniffling
sudden weight loss or gain
tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination
unusual odors on breath, body, or clothing
Behavioral warning signs of drug abuse often include:
engaging in secretive or suspicious behaviors
frequently getting into legal trouble, including fights, accidents, illegal activities, and driving under the influence
neglecting responsibilities at work or home
sudden changes in friends and hobbies
unexplained need for money or financial problems
using drugs under dangerous conditions such as while driving or with patients
Psychological warning signs of drug abuse may include:
appearing fearful, anxious, or paranoid for no reason
lack of motivation, excessive tiredness
periods of unusual increased energy, nervousness, or instability
sudden mood swings, increased irritability, or angry outbursts
unexplained change in personality of attitude
Recognizing When a Physician is Struggling with Addiction
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in recognizing addiction in a physician is the isolation effect it can have on the individual. Because doctors are the ones writing the prescriptions, many may fear disclosing an active addiction will result in the loss of not only prestige but also their medical license, and thus their livelihood.
It has also been shown that physicians in different specialties tend to abuse different classes of drugs. For example, alcohol remains the most abused substance among physicians, but only about 10 percent of anesthesiologists enter treatment for alcohol abuse. The majority of anesthesiologists with substance abuse struggle with an opioid use disorder instead. Symptoms of an opioid use disorder can be very subtle and often be blamed on other aspects of life like lack of sleep.
In many cases, physicians can divert these substances from their place of work, sometimes ever from their own patients. However, this can make keeping their jobs even more important, as it is their direct line to the substances they are misusing.
Finding the Right Addiction Treatment for a Physician
When a physician is struggling with an addiction, their instincts may be to deny the problem, but it is important to remember that they are only human and there are resources available to help. The sooner a substance use disorder is identified, the more likely it is that the individual will be able to continue to work in their chosen profession.
Different treatment types are available, depending on the severity of the addiction. The most common treatments include inpatient or outpatient care. Because addiction can be such an isolating thing for physicians, it is common for others to need to step in and assist them, and knowing what to look for in these situations can make all the difference.
Author Bio: Brooke Powell joined the editorial team at DrugRehab.org as a web content writer in 2017. She has a passion for breaking the stigma around addiction and mental health issues with informative and reliably sourced content. When she isn’t crafting content, she loves to get lost in a good book or puzzle.