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Addiction in Medical Professionals: How to Identify It

Addiction in Medical Professionals: How to Identify It
Self-medication and pain management with prescription drugs is a growing problem within the healthcare industry. And because medical professionals are some of the most educated individuals on the topic, they may also be some of the best at hiding their own signs of addiction.

Signs of Addiction in Medical Professionals

This is what you should look for if you’re ever concerned for one of your co-workers.

1. Repeated Tardiness or Absence from Work

Medical professionals work some of the longest and craziest hours of any industry in the world. And while these individuals may need to take a day every now and then to relax, consistent attendance issues may be a sign of a deeper problem.

If a doctor or nurse is consistently running late to work or taking more sick days than normal, it could be an indication of addiction or substance abuse. They may even disappear during the middle of a shift for a long period of time for unexplained reasons.

2. Decreased Productivity

Addiction can have serious impacts on a person’s productivity while on the job. This could show up in numerous aspects of their day-to-day workload. You may find they are making frequent mistakes on their charting or other paperwork, which they’ve never seemed to have an issue with before.

They may also show unusual signs of fatigue, which may even lead them to fall asleep while on the job.

3. Physical Signals

Some of the most telltale signs of addiction are the ones that can be seen, heard, and even smelled. Medical professionals who are struggling with self-medication or alcoholism may appear to have:

  • A disheveled or messy appearance.
  • Glossy eyes or small, pinpoint pupils regardless of lighting.
  • A smell of alcohol, which they frequently try to cover up with mints, gum, or mouthwash.
  • Slurred speech or may be visually impaired.

4. Unusual Desire to Work Night Shift

This may seem like a strange concept but if someone has a sudden impulse to work the night shift, it could be a sign of their substance abuse for multiple reasons. At night time, there may be fewer people around which means they won’t have to hide their symptoms from as many co-workers or patients.

Healthcare personnel may even want to work during the evening as a means of gaining easier access to pain management substances like prescription drugs. Less people also means a lower chance of getting caught taking them from the pharmacy.

Treatment Options for Medical Professionals Showing Signs of Addiction

With an estimated 10% to 12% of medical personnel developing a substance abuse disorder¹ at least once during their career, there may come a time when you’ll recognize someone in your workplace showing these signs of addiction. And it will be important for you to know the steps you can take to get them help.

Learn more about treatment options near you to be prepared if you ever come across someone struggling with self-medication or pain management.


  1. Berge, MD, Keith H. Seppala, MD, Marvin D. Schipper, JD, Agnes M. July 2009. Chemical Dependency and the Physician.
Last Updated on January 23, 2020
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Priscilla Henson, MD
Dr. Priscilla Henson is a Resident Physician specializing in Emergency Medicine at a community hospital in central California. She also serves as a member of the Pain Management Quality Improvement Committee through the same hospital. Part of the committee’s mandate is to work toward non-narcotic pain management alternatives.
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