There’s a twisted aspect of drug addiction, in addition to the turmoil it brings to the addict and everyone he or she touches (figuratively speaking). When each of us has a medical issue, we seek the advice and care of licensed practitioners who have the education, training and experience to guide us towards the best choices in achieving optimal health. Our trust in those we believe know better is putting us at serious risk. Despite how we want to perceive our doctors and nurses, they too are human and vulnerable to substance abuse. But there are specifics to their careers that may be cause for concern and why drug addiction is prevalent in healthcare.
But this story isn’t just about them, because what they do on the job and outside of work can mean life or death to you.
What You Don’t Know in the Operating Room Could Kill You
Hypothetical situation #1: You’re in a car accident and you’re rushed to the hospital emergency room for surgery.
Hypothetical situation #2: You have an orthoscopic knee surgery or plastic surgery procedure scheduled.
In either situation, imagine what could go wrong if your anesthesiologist, surgeon, attending nurse or medical technicians are under the influence of opioids, sedatives, amphetamines or alcohol. Scary, but possible. Not only possible – it happens.
Reported statistics, and I do stress the word reported, indicate that our medical practitioners have the same rate of drug abuse as the rest of us, roughly 10 to 15 percent. As patients under the care of these professionals from time to time, can’t we do better than being treated under the guise of a crapshoot?
Doctors and Nurses Predisposed to Addiction Risk
Stress comes with the territory of the job when working in healthcare, though some areas of specialty are particularly more taxing than others in time and performance demands. In fact, emergency room workers, psychiatrists and anesthesiologists have proportionately higher (no pun intended) rates of drug abuse than others. One such reason behind the ease of use is in the obvious – accessibility of the drugs.
Addiction Can Happen Accidentally, On Purpose
Much like the rest of us, drug addiction creeps up not by will but through life circumstances gone awry. We take opioid prescriptions to numb the discomfort of back pain or to ease the process of healing after oral surgery. There’s that window of time – 30 days – the tipping point between temporary relief and life-altering addiction. This too is the process for a doctor, nurse or other healthcare employee. Drug and alcohol abuse is the medical community’s dirty secret and there are many ways its members keep the truth hidden from their peers, supervisors and the public.
Drug Diversion Hides Addiction, Until Caught
The next time you enter a doctor’s office or surgicenter, take note of your surroundings. Healthcare professionals have a right (perceived, implied or literal) to come in contact with and dispense medication. As such, without an internal watchdog process, using drugs comes easy. As bad as street drugs are, medical facilities have morphine, hydrocodone, fentanyl and more, all extremely powerful and life-threatening.
Once a medical employee knows the prescription accounting system, creating a workaround to get drugs, undetected, can be tempting especially if you already have an addiction problem. The process in obtaining drugs illegally as a medical practitioner is known as drug diversion.
Drug Diversion Examples:
- For a physician, they can write themselves a prescription under a fictitious name.
- A nurse can adjust the amounts of medication dispensed and alter a medical report.
- A medical or surgical technician can steal drugs, often undetected, due to minimal or nonexistent safety measures in place at medical facilities.
- Doctors or nurses can take an injectable drug, meant for the patient, shoot it in themselves and replace the drug with saline and give that to the patient instead.
There are countless examples across the country of drug diversion, resulting in overdoses at hospitals and unfortunately, disease, injury and fatalities to patients. One of the more infamous cases is that of radiology technician David Kwiatkowski who traveled from state to state in his career, spanning 18 different hospitals.
Kwiatkowski was addicted to fentanyl. He would take care of his fix by first injecting prescribed medication into a patient, then pulling it out and injecting it into his own arm, then using the same syringe and injecting the patient again. At the time, he may or may not have known he had Hepatitis C.
Over the course of his addiction, he infected 45 patients with the Hep-C. It wasn’t until he nearly overdosed on a wrongly-labeled syringe filled with a drug meant to paralyze a patient, that he was found out.
Without Change, The Stigma Here Seems Infinite
Rational thought would lead us to assume that protective measures are put in place within healthcare businesses to help safeguard patients from employees and contractors who work under the influence. However, A + B doesn’t necessarily equal C.
There are inconsistencies and stopgaps in the medical industry with regards to taking proactive steps to better monitor and manage drug inventory and dispensing practices. Even in light of the instances of drug abuse, random drug testing of healthcare workers isn’t adopted let alone implemented. Some facilities have added surveillance cameras, and oversight agencies are stressing the need to add or increase education early on in medical and nursing school curriculum about addiction.
Troubling too is that nurses, for example, are given guidelines on how to identify substance abuse in a coworker but reporting instances to law enforcement is frowned upon. Could it be, in part, that private practices, medical institutions and industry agencies don’t want to smear their own name?
For healthcare professionals who question their ability to control drug or alcohol use, the stigmas in admitting the problem and seeking treatment are daunting. The fear in having their licenses pulled and the addiction reported to associated industry networks can hamper their ability to regain career status and employment in the future. As heavy as these risks are to medical practitioners with substance addiction, where does that leave the rest of us as patients?
Talk to Someone Who’s Been There. Talk to Someone Who Can Help. Arizona Addiction Recovery Center holds the highest accreditation (Joint Commission) and is Arizona’s premier rehab facility since 2007. Call 888-512-1705.
Authored by Melanie Stern, Content Director for Scottsdale Recovery Center, Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers and Cohn Media, LLC. Writer and broadcaster covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.