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

Shelly Reese

Disclosures

January 29, 2014

In This Article

Doctors May Often Relapse

Although physicians can receive completely confidential care, Dr. Seppala and other experts strongly advise them to report themselves to the physician health program in their state. Physician health programs provide ongoing monitoring that often lasts 5 years, depending on the state and the individual.

Monitoring may include behavioral assessments, random urine testing, and workplace surveillance. That may sound like a deal-breaker to a physician who has long struggled to hide his or her addiction, but as recovery takes hold, they often recognize it as a critical step.

Dr. Seppala says chemically dependent physicians who don't participate in monitoring programs have a relapse rate similar to that of the general population, noting that nearly one half of adults who undergo substance abuse treatment relapse during the first year. Physicians who undergo treatment and participate in ongoing monitoring, however, have a far lower rate of relapse, with only 22% testing positive at any point during the 5-year monitoring period and 71% still licensed and employed after 5 years.[3]

Whether physicians seek treatment on their own or are directed to by colleagues or family members, recovery is fraught with challenges. For Dr. Myer, the journey began roughly 4 years after he began abusing pain medications, when the medical director and an administrator in his practice staged an intervention. By then, the addiction was so powerful and entrenched there was no denying it.

"I had been so afraid and so ashamed for so long that at that point, it was almost a relief to be confronted," says Dr. Myer, who sought treatment and reported himself to the state physician health program. Difficult years followed.

Although he focused on detoxifying his body during the month-long treatment program, Dr. Myer says he didn't fully grasp that he had to change other aspects of his life and learn new, healthy coping mechanisms. He relied on his intellectual strengths and medical training to help him, but those weren't the right tools to help him recover.

"In medical school, only a tiny portion of my experience focused on addiction, and that was about detoxification, stabilization, and treatment of liver disease. It was about the clinical implications of the disease." Recovery, he says, was a completely different story.

"As a physician, I had such a hard time relinquishing control of my own care. I'd always been able to do things on my own. I studied hard, I worked hard, and I succeeded. But I finally had to learn that I couldn't will myself into recovery."

After several relapses, Dr. Myer's medical license was suspended. Unable to practice medicine, he went into long-term treatment. Only then was he able to address his problems, learn new coping behaviors, and regain control of his life. In 2010, Dr. Myer got back his medical license, and today he directs Hazelden's Health Care Professionals Program in Center City, Minnesota, where he helps other healthcare providers navigate the path to recovery.

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