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

Shelly Reese


January 29, 2014

In This Article

Easy Access Makes Addiction More Likely

Physicians aren't unlike many other people who turn to painkillers, antidepressants, and other prescription drugs as a way of coping with pain and life struggles. What sets them apart, however, is their access to medicines. Given their prescribing privileges, networks of professional contacts, and proximity to hospital and clinic supplies, physicians have rare access to powerful, highly sought-after drugs.

That access can not only foment a problem, it can perpetuate it, says Marvin D. Seppala, MD, chief medical officer at Hazelden, which operates 11 addiction treatment centers in the United States. Access rapidly becomes an addict's top priority, he notes, and self-medicating physicians will do everything in their power to ensure it continues.

"They're often described as the best workers in the hospital," he says. "They'll overwork to compensate for other ways in which they may be falling short, and to protect their supply. They'll sign up for extra call and show up for rounds they don't have to do." Physicians are intelligent and skilled at hiding their addictions, he says. Few, no matter how desperate, seek help of their own accord.

Dr. Myer was a prime example. Before long, he was asking patients in his small-town Minnesota practice to bring their prescriptions with them to their appointments, ostensibly so that he could better track all of the medications they were taking. When they weren't paying attention, he'd skim pills from their bottles.

Within about 6 months, people became suspicious. Colleagues and pharmacists expressed concern, but when confronted, Dr. Myer flatly denied there was a problem. Because he continued to perform well, no one pressed the issue.

The Struggle to Recover

Devastating as addiction may be, there is help and hope.

Physicians who find themselves mired in addiction can seek confidential treatment, says Dr. Seppala. In addition to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), records for patients undergoing treatment for substance abuse are protected under Title 42 in the Code of Federal Regulations (42 CFR) -- which, he says, affords even greater privacy protection. Consequently, physicians can seek professional treatment without disclosing their problem to colleagues or a medical board.

Both outpatient and inpatient treatment programs are available, with the latter generally lasting 1-3 months. Treatment usually includes group and individual psychotherapy, family and return-to-work evaluations, and lectures on addiction and recovery. After completing treatment, patients continue their recovery by participating in 12-step programs.


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