HealthWACH: Doctors on drugs



The word addiction is used in several ways. One definition describes physical addiction. This refers to the biological state in which the body adapts to the presence of a drug so the drug no longer has the same effect, also known as tolerance. Because people develop tolerance, there is a biological reaction when the drug is withdrawn. Another form of physical addiction is the phenomenon of overreaction by the brain to drugs, or cues associated with the drug. For example, when an alcoholic walks into a bar, they will feel an extra pull to have a drink because of the cues. However, most addiction problems are not related to physical tolerance or exposure to cues. People use drugs, gamble, or shop compulsively almost always in reaction to being emotionally stressed, whether or not they have an addiction. These psychologically based addictions are not based on drug or brain effects; they explain why people frequently switch addictive types of drugs.

It is easy to believe that your doctor maintains perfect health, but some definitely do not. One in ten physicians develops a problem with alcohol or drugs at some point during their careers. Those who admit they have an addiction to alcohol or drugs, as well as those who get reported, have to go through an intense substance abuse program before they can practice medicine again. Most physician health programs are pretty effective, helping close to 80 percent of doctors recover, and last 90 days. That is three times longer than addition programs for the general population.

Since drug and alcohol abuse in doctors are not as rare as we wish, it is possible you may encounter one someday. Dr. Wesley Boyd at Harvard Medical School gives some pointers to watch out for. He said you might suspect a substance abuse problem if your doctor:

  • Stumbles

  • Slurs speech

  • Becomes overly emotional

  • Looks unusually disheveled

  • Lacks coordination

  • Forgets beyond what is reasonable

  • Is irritated or easily angered