Substance Abuse among Healthcare Professionals a Challenge in Diagnosis, Treatment and Recovery

Over the past two decades, prescription drug abuse in the United States has nearly quadrupled. Only recently, however, has public perception truly grasped what is now referred to as an epidemic. Within that epidemic, it is those responsible for treatment who find themselves so often subject to abuse and addiction. It’s a problem, according to Peter Waterman of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, with myriad causes and pitfalls.

“‘Health professionals are quite good at hiding the problem, and function well until the problem is seriously advanced and the end stage of substance abuse is reached,” says a report published by Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment Journal.

The problem is multifaceted. First, health care professionals rarely relinquish control over health-related decisions and, therefore, are “notoriously bad’ patients. Second, health care professionals are often highly intelligent, highly educated and of good professional standing, all of which lend themselves to difficulty in the diagnosis of substance abuse. In fact, the 2013 study states that “the intellect and education level inherent to this population has been associated with exceptional rationalisation and denial.” Health care professionals may often feel that their knowledge and training exempts them from potential addiction.

A special eye should be given to contributing factors like on-the-job stress, long hours, personal issues and prior history. According to Phil Hemphill, the emergence of electronic medical records, in particular, has correlated with stress, burnout and impairment among health professionals. Yvette C. Terrie of Pharmacy Times writes that it is possible that, with intervention and treatment, these individuals may return to a substance-free life. Terrie stresses that early intervention is key, not only to addressing the addiction, but also in preventing harm to patients in their care.

Health professionals often seek drugs through a process known as diversion, wherein medications are removed without the immediate knowledge of others. Individuals abusing pharmaceuticals often report more medication spills and waste, for instance. Knowing these drug-seeking strategies and imposing oversight and individual accountability is principle in discouraging abuse in the field of health care.

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