Drug and Alcohol Rehab for Pharmacists

3 min read · 6 sections
Addiction can affect anyone, including healthcare providers. Pharmacists are especially vulnerable to substance use disorders (SUDs). While extensive research has not been conducted on the prevalence of SUDs among pharmacists, small study findings indicate that between 7% and 25% of pharmacists misuse non-medical prescription substances, specifically opioids and anti-anxiety medications.1

Unfortunately, substance misuse among pharmacists doesn’t just affect their health and well-being, it can lead to dangerous consequences for others, too. On-the-job mistakes could jeopardize a patient’s health or life.2

The good news is that most states have programs assisting pharmacy professionals who have substance use disorders, and most pharmacists who complete a treatment program maintain long-term abstinence.1,3

Statistics on Substance Abuse Among Pharmacists

Pharmacy professionals are at an increased risk of substance use disorders, and multiple studies reveal some alarming statistics, including:1,2-6

  • 46% of pharmacists have used controlled substances without a prescription.
  • 62% of pharmacy students have used controlled substances without a prescription.
  • Among pharmacy students, between 25%-30% engaged in binge drinking (having 5 or more drinks on one occasion) in the two weeks prior to one study.
  • Between 1%-6% of pharmacist students were current opioid users at the time of one study.
  • 88% of pharmacy practitioners in one study, who admitted to using nonprescription drugs, began using in college.
  • Of 811 drug diversion cases (where prescription medications are obtained or used illegally) across 9 states, more than 70% involved pharmacy technicians.
  • Most pharmacists misuse a substance other than alcohol, but pharmacists with alcohol abuse problems have a three-fold risk of relapse.
  • Pharmacy professionals who receive treatment and participate in a pharmacy assistance program (which monitors recovery) are less likely to relapse. In fact, individuals who do not participate in a pharmacy assistance program are 10 times more likely to relapse than those who do.

Signs of Substance Abuse in Pharmacists

Pharmacy practitioners who misuse prescription drugs—especially controlled substances—may take them to relieve stress, self-medicate, to improve their alertness at work, or something else.7 It’s important for family and colleagues to be aware of signs and symptoms of substance abuse among pharmacists, including:3,7

  • Absenteeism from work.
  • Disappearing inexplicably for extended periods during a shift.
  • A decline in work performance, such as making mistakes or keeping poor records.
  • Having difficulty concentrating or recalling instructions.
  • Having conflicts with coworkers, staff, and patients.
  • Experiencing hand tremors or impaired coordination.
  • Creating inappropriate prescriptions.
  • Exhibiting a progressive decline in personal appearance and hygiene.
  • Experiencing personality changes, like mood swings, anxiety, depression, or lack of impulse control.
  • Increasingly isolating themselves personally and professionally.
  • Coming into work on off days to “help out.”

Causes and Risk Factors of Addiction in Pharmacists

Certain risk factors of addiction are universal, such as a genetic predisposition or having a co-occurring mental health condition, but pharmacists also have unique challenges and risk factors of addiction that may include:3

  • Access and exposure to addictive prescription substances.
  • Job stress, which may be due to long hours, shift work, and inadequate help.
  • Working in an environment that often tolerates self-medication.
  • Feelings of invincibility (feeling that because they are educated about the pharmacodynamics of addictive medication, they won’t become addicted themselves).
  • Inadequate training about addiction or confidential treatment options, specifically for pharmacists and healthcare workers.

Consequences of Addiction in Pharmacists

A pharmacist’s mistake in compounding or dispensing medication can be dangerous or even fatal for patients.8 There is also the risk to themselves. Pharmacists who misuse substances may develop a substance use disorder, may overdose, or may run into legal trouble because of their controlled substance violations.1

Additionally, the possibility of negative licensure actions, feelings of shame, social stigmatization, and income loss—all of which may be associated with addiction—may cause some pharmacists to avoid detection and resist treatment.9

Denial, an unconscious defense mechanism, can cause an individual struggling with addiction to convince themselves they don’t have a problem. The person with the SUD might be experiencing denial, but their family, friends, and colleagues are susceptible to denial as well.9 Fear of damaging the pharmacist’s career often causes coworkers to rationalize behaviors and avoid confronting their colleague.9

Substance Abuse Treatment for Pharmacists

Luckily, state pharmacy boards recognized that substance misuse can affect pharmacy professionals and established the Pharmacy Recovery Network (PRN), a confidential program that makes treatment referrals and monitors the recovery of pharmacy professionals with substance use disorders.10

As with any addiction treatment, the appropriate level of care is based on an individual’s unique needs. Most pharmacists’ substance abuse programs begin with an active treatment phase lasting approximately 6–10 weeks.2 During this phase, treatment may draw on a variety of treatment types, including:3

  • Medical detox. Withdrawing from some substances can be extremely uncomfortable. Medically managed detoxification allows medical staff to monitor an individual’s safety and comfort as their body rids itself of drugs and/or alcohol. This helps lower the risk of relapse. Additionally, medications may be provided to reduce the symptoms of withdrawal.
  • Inpatient treatment. Some pharmacists and pharmacy professionals participate in residential programs, which involves staying at a facility while receiving intensive individual and group counseling, psychiatric care, and education to help them understand and resolve issues that lead to misuse drugs or alcohol. They learn to develop alternative coping strategies.
  • Boarded partial hospitalization. Other pharmacy professionals in treatment may live in housing, such as apartments, within walking distance of the treatment facility. Treatment looks identical to inpatient care but allows the individual to maintain some independence. Treatment occurs during regularly scheduled, clinic-based appointments and is provided in group and individual sessions.
  • Aftercare programs. Most aftercare programs for pharmacists and pharmacy professionals involve weekly group therapy sessions and ongoing participation in mutual help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous for at least 2 years. Additionally, there are typically restrictions on practicing that last 5 years and might include workplace monitoring or restrictions on working alone.

Untreated, substance use disorders can get worse, so it’s vital to seek treatment as soon as you realize there is a problem.4

The good news is that studies indicate that pharmacy professionals who receive treatment have high success rates in recovery.3 One study evaluated 116 pharmacists with SUDs, who had received treatment. Two years later, 87% maintained abstinence from alcohol and drugs.3

FAQs Regarding Rehab for Pharmacists


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