Drug Abuse Among Doctors: Easy, Tempting, and Not Uncommon

Shelly Reese

Disclosures

January 29, 2014

In This Article

Tomorrow -- Tomorrow, I Will Stop

That's what Marc Myer, a family practice physician in Minnesota, told himself each day as he stole prescription opiates from his patients to feed his addiction.

But for Dr. Myer and many physicians like him, "tomorrow" was a long time coming. For doctors addicted to prescription medications, recovery often begins with -- and depends upon -- intervention by their peers and coworkers.

A Long History of "Self-Medicating"

Physician drug abuse is not a new problem -- William Stewart Halsted, the father of American surgery, was addicted to cocaine -- but it's a persistent one.[1]

But whereas physicians are about as likely as the general public to abuse alcohol or illegal drugs, they're more likely to misuse prescription drugs, according to Lisa Merlo, PhD, a researcher at the University of Florida's Center for Addiction Research and Education. Given the epidemic of prescription addiction sweeping the nation, that's a grim statistic.

Most physicians who abuse prescription medications aren't seeking recreational thrills, says Merlo, whose research was published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in October 2013.[2] She interviewed 55 physicians being monitored by their state physician health programs for problems relating to alcohol and drug abuse. Of those, 38 doctors (69%) abused prescription drugs. In describing their motivation, most said they turned to prescription drugs to relieve stress and physical or emotional pain.[1]

In Dr. Myer's case, he had been prescribed opiates after extraction of his wisdom teeth, but found himself resorting to them as a way of coping with undiagnosed depression during his residency. The drugs elevated his mood; they made him feel secure and "comfortable in my own skin," he says. "Rather than feeling tired and nauseous, I felt stimulated. Initially, it helped my performance."

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