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Substance Abuse Among Doctors: Key Statistics & Rehab Options

Like nurses and other healthcare providers, doctors are often subjected to long work hours and stressful conditions. And like the rest of the general population, doctors also turn to substances as a form of coping and self-medication. Here are some key statistics concerning substance abuse among physicians.

How Many Doctors Suffer from Substance Abuse?

Similar to rates of substance abuse for the general population, studies show that between 10%-15% of all doctors in the United States go through substance abuse at some point during their career.1 Rates of addiction are highest in physicians within the specialties of anesthesiology, emergency medicine, and psychiatry.2 Doctors have plentiful access to drugs, opening the door for self-medication and abuse. Not surprisingly, many doctors resort to painkillers, antidepressants, and other prescription medicines to cope with stress. According to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, 69% of doctors reported that they abused prescription medicine “to relieve stress and physical or emotional pain.”3

Substance abuse among physicians is associated with a higher rate of suicide. There is a 40% higher occurrence of suicide among male doctors when compared to their male peers, and the female doctor suicide rate is about 130% higher than women in the general population.4

Alcohol Abuse Among Doctors

A nationwide study of substance use disorders in a large sample of physicians showed that alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among doctors in the United States.5 Data show 12.9% of male physicians and 21.9% of female physicians abuse alcohol, much higher rates than the 6.2% of the overall U.S. population aged 18 years or older with an alcohol use disorder.6 A 5-year cohort study of physician health programs found that alcohol was the primary substance of abuse for more than half of the doctors enrolled in these addiction support and monitoring programs.2

The Abuse of Prescription Drugs Among Doctors

The misuse of prescription drugs, particularly opioids and benzodiazepines, is very prevalent among doctors. Nearly 36% of physicians enrolled in physician health programs suffer from opioid abuse.2 Greater access to prescription drugs may help to explain why this form of self-medication is so common among doctors.7 Overall, the rate of prescription drug abuse among doctors is about 5 times higher than in the general population.2

Among all doctors, the incidence of prescription drug abuse is most frequent among anesthesiologists. Among anesthesiologists, Fentanyl (a potent opioid painkiller) is the controlled substance most often abused.8

Treatment Options & Rehab for Doctors

Substance abuse treatment options for doctors are different from those available to the rest of the population. Most states have an independent physician health program that provides advocacy and monitoring services and directs physicians to drug, alcohol, and mental health treatment. Physician health programs ensure doctors receive the treatment and long-term monitoring required to safely return to medical practice.

A national survey on the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment programs for doctors found that physician health programs are more successful than alternative treatment options. Key findings from the study include:9

  • 78% of PHP participants remain substance free, with no relapse, at the 5 year follow up
  • 71% of PHP participants retained their license and employment at the 5 year follow up

With the proper treatment plan, doctors can both recover from their substance abuse and continue practicing within their profession.

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  1. Baldisseri, M.R. (2013). Impaired healthcare professional. Critical Care Medicine, 35(2 Suppl), S106-S116.
  2. McLellan, A.T., Skipper, G.S., Campbell, M., & DuPont, R.L. (2008). Five year outcomes in a cohort study of physicians treated for substance use disorders in the United States. BMJ, 337, a2038.
  3. Merlo, L.J., Singhakant, S., Cummings, S.M., & Cottler, L.B. (2013). Reasons for misuse of prescription medication among physicians undergoing monitoring by a physician health program. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 7(5), 349-353.
  4. Schernhammer, E.S., & Colditz, G.A. (2004). Suicide rates among physicians: a quantitative and gender assessment (meta-analysis). American Journal of Psychiatry, 161(12), 2295-2302.
  5. Oreskovich, M.R., Shanafelt, T., Dyrbye, L.N., Tan, L., Sotile, W., Satele, D., … & Boone, S. (2015). The prevalence of substance use disorders in American physicians. The American Journal on Addictions, 24(1), 30-8.
  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2019). Alcohol Facts and Statistics.
  7. Merlo, L., & Gold, M. (2008). Prescription opioid abuse and dependence among physicians: hypotheses and treatment. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 16(3), 181–94.
  8. Booth, J.V., Grossman, D., Moore, J., Lineberger, C., Reynolds, J.D., Reves, J.G., & Sheffield, D. (2002). Substance abuse among physicians: a survey of academic anesthesiology programs. Anesthesia and Analgesia, 95(4), 1024-1030.
  9. DuPont, R.L., McLellan, A.T., Carr, G., Gendel, M., & Skipper, G.E. (2009). How are addicted physicians treated? A national survey of Physician Health Programs. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 37(1), 1-7.
Last Updated on February 8, 2021
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