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  • Camille Barnett

The Quiet Epidemic: Nurses and Doctors Who Fall Prey to Addiction


Showtime’s smash hit “Nurse Jackie” unveiled an inside point of view on the temptation and availability of drugs to medical professionals, drug use in the workplace and the challenges of being human and addicted to prescription drugs.

In the original series, Nurse Jackie works in a New York emergency room and juggles her family life, a work shift involving trauma care and long hours, and the task of lead nurse.

More commonly than most people realize, nurses and doctors use substances to cope with high stress levels. Intelligent and highly functioning professionals misusing or abusing prescription drugs can be found not only in New York, but around the country in droves.

Stress in the Workplace

Professionals, corporate executives, business owners, nurses and doctors have high-stakes and high-stress jobs. Stress, anxiety, burnout and workaholicism — symptoms often present in doctors’ and nurses’ careers — increase a person’s vulnerability to abusing alcohol and drugs.

In our competitive Western socioeconomic culture, working harder and longer is considered admirable. We glorify success in the workplace above all other successes in life.

Along with our stress-inducing modern work environment comes the social acceptance — peer pressure even — of coping with substances and after-work drinks.

But the higher your stress level in the workplace, the more susceptible you are to falling prey to addiction.

Workaholism and Addiction

Families of people struggling with addiction know the pain of the disease right along with their loved one. Family members often see their recovering loved ones developing addictive patterns in the workplace. Workaholism is lauded by everyone except the families of workers.

Workaholic: A person who spends an excessive amount of time working, either for devotion to their job or out of feelings of compulsion.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studies have shown that the more hours worked beyond the standard 40-hour work week, the more likely one is to develop an alcohol problem or substance use disorder.

Workaholism is considered an obsessive-compulsive behavior, but some call it an addiction. When someone becomes obsessed with working too much, it has negative consequences in their home life and health.

Workaholics’ incessant work-related behaviors result in the neglect of family and other areas of life.

We all must find a happy work-life balance.

Drugs in the Workplace

People who become addicted to drugs as adults often think, “It won’t happen to me”. Adults, and most children now, know the risks and dangers of having a drug problem.

However, addiction often starts small; a prescription for painkillers taken longer than necessary can morph into a craving for opioids. That after-work drink turns into two, three, until they are consumed by binge drinking which wreaks havoc on their physical and emotional state.

The negative consequences of drug and alcohol abuse not only affect the worker, but also families, friends, coworkers and employers.

Those employees who are exposed to alcohol and prescription or illicit drugs in their workplace or workplace culture are at higher risk than average to develop addictions.

Nurses and Doctors at Risk for Addiction

Those who work in the medical field face unique challenges professionally. Not only do they have demanding jobs, but also they have access to tempting substances. They are in regular contact with addictive drugs, and they have ease of access to these substances.

But impaired nurses and doctors endanger us all, because when a mistake is made in the medical field, patients suffer.

Substance abuse on the job results in:

  • Difficulty staying focused

  • Trouble thinking clearly

  • Inattention to detail

All of these are imperative characteristics in solid nursing and doctoring.

Addiction Does Not Discriminate According to Job Title

Some hospitals have initiated random urine testing, but awareness is still too low, preventing early detection of substance misuse and abuse on the job. By the time nurses and doctors realize they have a problem — or someone close to them notices the problem — it’s too late: They are already addicted.

Accessible and Highly Addictive

Like Nurse Jackie, nurses can easily skim a few fentanyl patches off the stack being sent up to another floor. They can also appropriate the excess codeine a patient doesn’t finish in a package, or get their pharmacist friend to sneak a few Percocet pills for their alleged back pain. Abusing and developing a habit for prescription medication can quickly act as a gateway for even harder drugs.

In addition, doctors can easily fill prescriptions they or their coworkers write, or they can confiscate a few of the samples left by the pharmaceutical rep.

None of it on the record, accessibility can be an onus when it comes to working with drugs of abuse.

Recovery for Prestigious Professionals

There tends to be a veneration of doctors, yet doctors are merely human beings who have chosen the medical profession and are susceptible to the same weaknesses as the rest of us. Addiction is a human challenge that anyone can succumb to.

Rates of illicit drug use are lower among physicians than the general public, but five times higher for prescription drug misuse, according to the Harvard Review of Psychiatry in 2008. Because of their high-stakes jobs, doctors are not immune to alcohol and drug use. In fact, the Harvard Health Blog reports one in 10 doctors will develop a drug or alcohol problem sometime in their career.

Once a medical professional is discovered to have a problem with drugs or alcohol, they must seek help if they hope to continue in their chosen field. Doctors can easily lose their licenses for non-compliance with a drug and alcohol rehab program, so they are forced to recover from the addiction if they want to practice medicine again.

Where to Find Appropriate Treatment

Some private rehab centers in New York cater to people in prestigious professions. If you are in a high-profile position or in a career that requires maintaining a good reputation, your anonymity and privacy are critical in your rehabilitation experience.

In northern California, Elevate Rehab provides world-class treatment with its secluded, spacious drug and alcohol rehab center. Elevate Rehab offers a top-tier rehabilitation team in a camp-like setting perfect for those seeking a totally private and peaceful atmosphere.

Doctors, nurses, professionals and all people struggling with a substance or alcohol problem should not hesitate to seek help from a qualified treatment center. Private, compassionate and confidential treatment is available.


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FOA Families of Addicts.

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