In a 2013 article published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, Lisa Merlo, a researcher at the University of Florida’s Center for Addiction Research and Education, interviewed 55 physicians being monitored by their state physician health programs for alcohol and drug abuse. Of the 55, 38 abused prescription drugs. According to Merlo, most of the physicians used drugs to relieve stress and physical and emotional pain.
According to an article on Medscape.com, physicians are no different from lay people when it comes to prescription drug abuse. What distinguishes physicians from the general public is their knowledge of pharmaceuticals and their access to them. A 2014 USA Today article reported that 100,000 doctors, nurses, medical technicians and health care aides are abusing or dependent on prescription drugs in a given year. The majority of these individuals acquire prescription drugs by rerouting them from their employers—hospitals, clinics, doctor offices.
Exposing unsuspecting public to risk
Addicted healthcare workers place the public at risk. In 2013, David Kwiatkowski, a traveling hospital technician, was sentenced to 39 years in prison for infecting 46 people with hepatitis C in New Hampshire. 8,000 others had to be tested for the virus. Kwiatkowski diverted fentanyl-filled syringes from surgical patients. He injected himself, refilled the syringes with saline and returned them to supply. Patients injected with the used syringes became infected with Kwiatkowski’s hepatitis C virus. Kwiatkowski admitted in court to knowing he was infected with the virus. According to the USA Today, this was the third hepatitis outbreak since 2009 linked to healthcare workers using patients’ syringes to get high.
No checks and balances exacerbates the problem
Statistics on prescription drug addiction among healthcare professions are inconclusive for a number of reasons. First, as mentioned above, these individuals often have unfettered access to their drugs and are adept at fudging records. Second, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act—HIPAA—mandates records regarding treatment for substance abuse remain confidential—these include records for physicians and other healthcare workers. A nurse or physician who seeks treatment for substance abuse is not required to report the treatment to their respective governing boards. Third, healthcare workers are rarely suspended or lose their privileges until they commit multiple transgressions.
Healthcare worker treatment programs set the bar too low
According to the USA Today article, most states have drug treatment facilities for healthcare workers. These are generally governed by state licensing boards or medical societies. A healthcare worker who voluntarily enters treatment can keep his job with no paper trail leading back to his stint in rehab. Based on statistics gathered from such facilities, the desired enrollment quota is 1 to 3 percent of the healthcare population. If total enrollment nationwide reached 1 percent of the population, that would equal 50,000 enrollees. That number, broken down to ratio of Rx abusers would mean 9,000 of 878,000 licensed physicians; 27,000 of 2.7 million nurses and 15,000 medical technicians, nurse assistants and clinical staff. California had 126,000 licensed physicians in 2007. That year, 250—less than .2 percent—enrolled in the California Medical Board’s substance abuse and monitoring program. Based on data projections, the minimal number of California’s healthcare worker population that should have sought treatment is 1,260.
Drug addiction crosses every socio-economic boundary. It targets every industry, every demographic. If you are battling prescription drugs or any substance, please call 866-450-1557. We are here to help.