The last decade has seen an explosion in the rate of prescription drug abuse nationwide. Abuse of powerful painkillers (OxyContin, Percocet, etc) known as opioids is especially prevalent and problematic. In the wrong hands, prescription medicine with legitimate medical value can be as deadly as street drugs.
Sadly, “the wrong hands” sometimes belong to physicians. Rates of drug and alcohol addiction among physicians are similar to those among the general public. But due to the nature of their work and their level of access to these drugs, addiction among physicians is an especially dangerous problem.
When a doctor has been accused of medical negligence, he or she may be investigated for signs of drug or alcohol abuse. This is not to say that addiction is always the cause of medical errors or even the leading cause. But in light of their access to prescription drugs and the very stressful nature of their work, a significant number of physicians use drugs and alcohol (or contemplate using them) to cope.
Being in active addiction makes nearly anyone a liability at work. But for physicians, who work directly with patients, the stakes are much higher. Alcohol and drug abuse lead to impaired judgment, lack of focus, poor sleep, shaky hands and other symptoms that hinder a doctor’s ability to do his work. If the abuse continues, it is only a matter of time before the physician makes a dangerous or even fatal medical error.
Doctors are human, just like the rest of us. As such, they are not immune from the disease of addiction. But doctors who continue to practice medicine while impaired or mentally/physically compromised are a risk to their patients and to themselves. Hospital administrators have a responsibility to monitor their physicians to ensure that they are not allowed to keep practicing if they are abusing drugs and alcohol.
Source: Psych Central, “Medical Negligence: Sometimes Caused by Substance Abusing Physicians,” Jerry Nelson