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Treating a Health Industry Worker for Alcohol Abuse Issues

It is a common belief that alcohol and drug problems are often reserved for people who may be "down on their luck" and not for those who are gainfully employed with high-end professional careers. This is simply not the case. Addiction and alcohol abuse are present across all demographics in the United States.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) reports that close one-quarter of all workers in America admit to consuming alcohol during their workday at least once in the past year, according to federal surveys. Drinking in the workplace can lead to a multitude of issues, including an increased risk for injury to oneself or others. In the healthcare profession, these potential hazards are compounded. Medical professionals are highly educated and generally successful individuals who may not seem to fit the traditional stereotype of an alcoholic. This high-stress profession can lead to issues with substance abuse, however.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) publishes that around 4.5 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 64 who were working fulltime in the healthcare or social assistance industry reported heavy drinking in the month prior to the surveys conducted between 2008 and 2012. More than 5.5 percent of this same demographic battled a substance use disorder in the year leading up to the national surveys. The journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings reports 10-12 percent of physicians are apt to struggle with addiction at some point in their careers, and half of those who do suffer from alcohol addiction. Medical professionals struggle with alcohol abuse and addiction at rates that are similar to, or slightly higher than, the general public.

Understanding the Problem

The healthcare industry can be fast-paced and stressful, and medical professionals often have to learn how to distance themselves emotionally from painful or distressing events. Certain healthcare specialties may be at a higher risk than others, possibly because of the high levels of stress associated with them, as the journal Critical Care Medicine publishes that professionals in emergency medicine, psychiatry, and anesthesia battle substance abuse issues at the highest rate within the medical field. Alcohol can often be a method of coping with stress or used to help a person self-medicate.

Additionally, medical professionals are often able to conceal their alcohol use, potentially falling into the "functional alcoholic" subtype. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that nearly 20 percent of all alcoholics fit into the functional subtype and that most are middle-aged with stable jobs, a high level of education, and families. High-functioning alcoholics are able to separate the drinking from the workplace, and to continue working and being productive professionally. It may be difficult to recognize that a problem exists, as these individuals are likely leading a sort of "double life."

Family members commonly enable functional alcoholics, making excuses for them and allowing them to continue to drink to excess. Medical professionals who struggle with alcohol abuse may hide bottles of alcohol around the workplace, replace meals with alcohol, make excuses to drink socially, and suffer from "blackouts" when drinking.

Individuals struggling with alcohol addiction are unable to stop drinking once they start, often having many more drinks than they intended to in a sitting. Regardless of a desire to stop drinking, someone who battles alcohol addiction is unable to stop on their own.

Alcohol abuse within the healthcare field can be especially dangerous to patients and people under the care of someone who is unable to think clearly or make sound decisions due to the influence of alcohol. Alcohol impedes cognitive abilities, memory functions, movement, and mood regulation. Physicians also generally have easy access to narcotics and other mind-altering substances, and the issue of polydrug abuse may be a concern as well.

Alcohol addiction can carry a stigma that makes it hard for medical professionals to seek treatment, for fear of losing their medical license or their ability to continue working in the healthcare field. Individuals may then work extra hard to hide issues related to drinking and deny that a problem exists.

Treatment programs will need to be specialized and cater to this specific industry in order to be the most beneficial. Privacy and confidentiality are highly necessary to encourage these professionals to enter into an addiction treatment program.

Information on Other Professions

Addiction Treatment for Medical Professionals

There are several programs that exist to help professionals who battle addiction. States have specialized addiction treatment programs in place for medical professionals that are confidential and non-punitive as long as the person entering the program has not already faced criminal or legal actions related to their substance abuse.

The healthcare industry can be volatile, and specialized treatment programs are needed to address the specific issues that plague medical and healthcare professionals. Thorough evaluations and assessments are done prior to admission into any program to ensure that the program will be the right fit.

Much of the time, a detox program will be the first stage of treatment, as alcohol withdrawal can be difficult and even potentially life-threatening without medical intervention and supervision. After detox, an individual will enter into a treatment program that may be either inpatient or outpatient, depending on what that particular person needs. Outpatient programs are more flexible and allow individuals to continue to attend to their daily obligations; however, inpatient treatment models are more comprehensive and provide a stable and structured environment.

State-sponsored programs for healthcare professionals are completely voluntary, confidential, and do not punish the individual for seeking help. These programs may be contracted through private or public treatment facilities and require individuals to sign a contract that commits them to the following in order to retain their licensure and ability to continue to practice medicine, Medscape publishes:

  • Three years of monitoring, including frequent random drug tests
  • Weekly therapy sessions provided by a trained substance abuse counselor
  • Regular sessions with an addiction physician
  • Three or more 12-Step meetings each week, which will include at least one meeting that is hosted specifically for healthcare professionals
  • A relationship with a sponsor who will support the individual in recovery
  • Identification of a work-place "monitor" who will help to ensure that the individual remains compliant with treatment and on track in recovery

Programs set up for medical professionals should include trained professionals who understand the profession and its unique circumstances as well as potential problems that may arise when the individual returns to the workplace. Group therapy and counseling sessions that are made up of other people in the healthcare industry can provide empathy, support, and encouragement. Individual therapy and counseling sessions serve to address the individual's personal maladaptive or self-destructive behaviors, and reverse them. Coping strategies for the unique pressures and stressors that can arise within the medical field are outlined and methods are devised to deal with them.

After leaving a treatment program, medical professionals who battle addiction should maintain connections with a recovery network, such as being a member of a 12-Step group like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which may have local specialized meetings for members within the health industry. Medical professionals are commonly able to return to work and retain their licenses after treatment, and a comprehensive and specialized alcohol addiction treatment program can provide them with the tools to do so.