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How Common Is Alcoholism In Medical Professionals?
It’s a prevalent trope in popular culture: from Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House to Alan Alda’s Hawkeye, the American public has grown accustomed to the image of busy doctor self-medicating with drugs or alcohol as a way of dealing with the stress of their jobs or the drama of their personal lives. But just how widespread is alcoholism in medical professionals?
Statistics can tell a few different stories: Some studies have indicated that medical professionals actually drink at a rate lower than the general population, while others indicate that some specific groups — such as surgeons — do tend to abuse alcohol more often than those in other fields.
Of course, when medical professionals do drink the results can be disastrous: lives can be lost, careers can be destroyed, and millions of dollars could be spent on medical malpractice or negligence lawsuits. Even with the stakes so high, addiction and abuse persist. Alcoholism in medical professionals can develop for a variety of reasons with severe effects of the condition. Thankfully, there are treatment options for medical professionals that struggle with alcohol abuse.
What Are The Causes Of Alcoholism In Medical Professionals?
- Long and irregular hours. The medical profession is notorious for its unforgiving schedule, with The Atlantic reporting that, “Residents in America are expected to spend up to 80 hours a week in the hospital and endure single shifts that routinely last up to 28 hours.” Working so long have can have a serious toll on one’s health and contribute to alcoholism in medical professionals, with one study finding that such hours increased the likelihood of by becoming a heavy drinker by 12%.
- Burnout. One reason for alcoholism in medical professionals could be workplace burnout. Practitioners may regularly face traumatic and harrowing experiences at work, feel as though they’re not making progress in their profession, or become burdened by the debt they’ve accumulated through years of schooling. All of this can add up to burnout, which may contribute to alcoholism.
- Invitations to drink. Doctors may find themselves at networking events where drinking is commonly used as a social lubricant or even a status symbol. Pharmaceutical companies in particular may offer to “wine and dine” medical professionals at conferences or educational events, potentially making it tough to turn down an offer of an alcoholic drink.
- Self-image. Some medical professionals may believe themselves to be above alcoholism, especially if they know a lot about the science of addiction or having worked with patients struggling with substance abuse. This potential air of invulnerability could contribute to practitioners being in denial of their drinking, which might make it more difficult to identify and treat alcoholism in medical professionals.
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What Are The Effects Of Alcoholism In Medical Professionals?
- Cirrhosis of the liver. One report out of the United Kingdom found that doctors had triple the likelihood of developing cirrhosis of the liver, a late stage of liver disease that can be caused by alcohol abuse. Cirrhosis can appear with no symptoms at all; the condition can also present with itchiness, jaundice, swelling, and confusion. If left untreated alcoholism in medical professionals can lead to cirrhosis, which can lead to death.
- Cancer. Alcohol causes cancer and was responsible for almost a quarter of a million cases in 2020 alone. The elevation of risk can occur at as little as 2 drinks a day, if not fewer, which means that even those who drink moderately could be predisposing themselves to developing the disease.
- Depression. Medical students are 3 times as likely to suffer from depression as the general population. Alcohol is a depressant, and studies have shown the substance has a causal link to depression. That’s not to say that every person in the medical field who’s depressed is an alcoholic, but one thing’s for sure: people who already have tough lives don’t tend to get happier in the long-term when they drink.
- Divorce. Alcoholism in medical professionals can impair judgment and reduce inhibitions, potentially resulting in risky or impulsive behavior like having an affair. It’s also been linked to aggression and is involved in a substantial proportion of domestic violence cases. For someone whose relationship may already be strained by the stress of their profession, alcohol is not a good additive.
- Medical malpractice. As Reuters reported in 2012, “Among the 722 physicians who said they had a major medical error in the past 3 months, 77% of them scored within the range of having alcohol problems.” When doctors, surgeons, or nurses drink, the results can be disastrous and even fatal. Lives may be lost, and millions may be spent on lawsuits because of the effects of alcoholism in medical professionals.
- Loss of employment. Showing up to work tardy because of a late-night bender, performing one’s job poorly due to intoxication or hangover, and prioritizing alcohol abuse above professional life can result in job loss. This can be especially damaging in regards to alcoholism in medical professionals, many of whom may have attended school for years – and/or accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt – and who therefore have an even larger-than-normal stake in their career.
- Suicide. Doctors have an elevated risk of suicide. Drinking has been linked to suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and suicide itself. No one who struggles with thoughts of self-harm should drink, which is one reason why there’s a heightened danger around alcoholism in medical professionals.
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How Can An Alcoholic Get Treatment?
There’s no shame in having an alcohol addiction. There’s a reason so many can’t control their drinking despite the disastrous consequences — there may be no stronger example than alcoholism in medical professionals, who seemingly should know better than anyone what the ramifications of alcohol abuse are.
No matter your line of work, you deserve to live a long and healthy life. If you struggle with drinking, get help now by contacting a treatment provider and learning about how you can get clean and stay clean.
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