It is easy to stereotype opioid users as poor, misguided souls, down on their luck and in search of reality-altering fixes. The reality is considerably more complex. The scourge of addiction is among us, masked in plain sight in the workplace, even among health professionals who should know better.
This is the sad takeaway from a Dallas Morning News report chronicling the deaths of two nurses at the UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Clements hospital in Dallas. They overdosed in the same way — on the job and in a locked bathroom, each clutching a syringe, track marks on their arms, using the painkiller fentanyl.
Tragically, more than 100 deaths occur each day from opioid abuse in the U.S. But addiction is far-reaching and embedded in the lifestyles of too many Americans. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence estimates that more than 70 percent of abusers of drugs in America are employed even as they binge drink, use marijuana, cocaine or abuse prescription drugs.
And medical providers aren’t exempt. The Journal of Clinical Nursing estimates that approximately 20 percent of all nurses struggle with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Among physicians, about 10 percent will struggle with drug or alcohol abuse.
UT Southwestern has released few details about the nurses and can’t say for sure how they obtained the drugs, though it is clear that fentanyl is stolen from hospitals with concerning frequency. The Addiction Center, which monitors abuse among medical professionals nationally, says medical professionals face a deadly combination of opportunity and temptation.
Doctors and nurses have access to oxycodone or fentanyl in the course of their jobs and may be tempted to abuse these powerful prescription medications if the drugs aren’t properly inventoried and kept under the closest guard. Knowledge of the consequences should deter medical abusers, but the center notes that expertise about drug-induced euphoria may be too much for some to resist. And there is another factor in play — stress.
Medical professionals make life-and-death decisions on patients during unpredictable and exhausting work shifts. Some handle it well, but those who don’t are susceptible to self-medication, a reaction that is commonly found in many other high-stress jobs, too. Detecting a drug or alcohol dependence in doctors or nurses or even accountants and lawyers can be difficult; many are highly functional addicts.
And that is the challenge. Regardless of their occupation, addicts pose a threat to others even if they don’t think they do. Not only are they putting their health at risk but also the well-being of others on and off the job. The sooner an addiction is faced head on, the better. And that’s why it is crucial that people with addictions — especially medical professionals — get treatment and not hide in the dark recesses of drug abuse.
An editorial from the Dallas Morning News.