Healthcare Professionals and Substance Abuse - Pharmacology

Fans of the television show “ER” will recall how Dr. John Carter became dependent on pain medication that was legally prescribed to treat pain from a nearly deadly attack he experienced in the emergency room. His dependency drove him to steal drugs from the hospital to feed his addiction.

“ER” is fiction, but its depiction of a healthcare professional becoming a substance abuser is well founded as up to 15 percent of overall addiction to opioids have been attributed to healthcare professionals for more than 130 years. Many healthcare professionals who become drug abusers feel they can self-medicate without becoming addicted because they know when to stop taking the medication. Craving for the drug quickly overshadows their critical thinking.

Healthcare professionals self-administer drugs for a number of reasons.


Some healthcare professionals such as interns and residents are on duty for 36 hours at a stretch during which they make many critical decisions. Some feel they need a boost to maintain a high performance level especially after being on duty for so many hours without sleep.


A healthcare provider knows how to recognize symptoms of a disease and knows what medications are used to treat the disease so it makes sense to self-treat when he or she becomes ill. This is especially true when the healthcare provider is depressed, anxious, or is in pain. The information used to diagnose personal illness is subjective and as the craving for the medication increases it interferes with the objective reasoning that the healthcare provider normally uses when assessing patients.


Drugs are available to many healthcare professionals especially in a healthcare facility where they administer medication. Even under tight controls, drugs can be diverted by healthcare professionals with little chance of being caught. For example, they may give the patient half the prescribed dose and keep the other half for themselves.


After a long shift, healthcare professionals need to relax. The fastest way to get to that state of mind may be to take a pill or inject a drug. However, additional doses may be needed to remain in that state. Eventually, the healthcare professional may become addicted to the drug.

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