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Over 168,000 healthcare workers use illicit drugs, warns Novus Medical Detox Center

A new study out of Australia revealed that, on average, 37 healthcare professionals die each year from drug overdoses. Meanwhile, U.S. government surveys found that more than 168,000 healthcare and social assistance workers engage in illicit drug use each year.

Between 2003 and 2013, Australian coroners documented 404 drug-related fatalities among healthcare professionals, with nurses accounting for 63% of those deaths and medical practitioners for 18%. Researchers noted that most of the drugs were obtained illegally from employees’ workplaces, either by theft or self-prescription. They theorize that several factors may predispose healthcare workers to substance abuse and premature death, including high-stress careers, long work hours and ready access to controlled substances. 

Within the United States, the latest report on substance abuse by industry compared combined data from 2003–2007 and 2008–2012, and found the number of healthcare and social assistance professionals engaging in past-month illicit drug use rose from an average of 164,600 to 168,400 per year. A USA TODAY investigative story further revealed that 1 in 10 practitioners will succumb to drug or alcohol abuse at some point in their lives.

Novus Medical Detox Center, a Florida-based drug treatment facility, calls for healthcare employers to proactively address the issue with programs aimed at preventing substance abuse and providing appropriate treatment.

“Healthcare workers are expected to play a key role in identifying and treating patients with substance use disorders. Yet studies show that a number of them are waging their own battles against addiction and dependency,” observed Will Wesch, Director of Admissions for Novus Medical Detox Center. “These are people who undoubtedly understand the risks of substance abuse and misuse, so the fact that they’ve fallen victim to it proves that nobody is immune to addiction or dependency.”

Though substance abuse in the healthcare industry may have previously been overlooked or underreported, Wesch says that popular dramas like the Netflix series Nurse Jackie have raised awareness of the issue, while news stories have demonstrated the potential repercussions. For example, one hospital technician who was found to be injecting himself with patients’ medications and refilling the syringes with saline is believed to have infected more than 45 patients with hepatitis.

“Drug diversion among healthcare workers can have dire consequences for practitioners and patients alike,” warned Wesch. “That’s why it’s in employers’ best interests to have programs and policies for dealing with these kinds of issues before they lead to fatal outcomes. Administrators should be monitoring staff for signs of stress and overwork, and providing appropriate mental health services to deter workers from ‘self-medicating’ to cope with the demands of their jobs.” 

Wesch also advises employers to provide and promote access to drug treatment programs rather than relying solely on punitive policies. “If healthcare professionals fear for their jobs, they’re more likely to hide their substance use than seek help. Likewise, workers may be more apt to cover for colleagues they suspect of using drugs because they don’t want to get anyone fired,” he explained. “When employers support drug rehab and detox programs, it can motivate users to get clean. It also gives the healthcare facility an opportunity to regain a committed and experienced worker rather than having to recruit and train a replacement.”

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