It's a not-so-secret trend that happens in hospitals and medical institutions across the country: doctors who dip their fingers in the huge candy dish of prescription drugs available to them.
While studies estimate that substance abuse among physicians is similar to that among the general population, prescription drug abuse among doctors tends to be more rampant – and the problem is growing.
New research published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine suggests that prescription drug abuse among doctors is less recreational than it is a response to stress. Most doctors surveyed in the study revealed that they were self-medicating for physical pain, depression, anxiety or stress in their personal and professional lives.
Current studies estimate that about 10 to 15 percent of physicians will develop a substance abuse problem at some point.
Narcotics are drug of choice
Researchers from the University of Florida surveyed focus groups of 55 doctors who were under surveillance of their state physician health program (PHP) for problems with drug or alcohol abuse. PHPs are used to help physicians recover from substance abuse while providing a long-term monitoring system for their health and professional lives.
The drugs most abused by doctors involved the study were narcotic painkillers, like oxycodone or hydrocodone. As is the case for many patients, most physicians started using these types of drugs after obtaining a prescription from another doctor to treat physical pain. Over time, misuse began, larger doses were taken, and a full-blown addiction was in place, the study reported.
"Recreational use of these drugs is pretty low on the list," Dr. J. Randle Adair, a substance abuse expert at the Hazeldon treatment center in Springbrook, Ore., told HealthDay.
More 'guilt and shame'
Part of the problem in recognizing and treating prescription drug abuse among doctors is that physicians tend to seek help much later than the average person, Adair said. Moreover, the drugs they use tend to be more powerful, and doctors have more guilt and shame about their addiction.
"There are all of these layers that are hard to get through," he said.
While it's not legal for doctors to prescribe themselves controlled substances like narcotic painkillers, many do it, Adair said, including those who never develop a problem because of it.
Stress, time constraints and other professional pressures make doctors likely to self-diagnose instead of seeing another physician. If they don't prescribe themselves a medication, it's easy enough to get another doctor friend to do it – or to steal from their places of employment.
Study author Lisa Merlo said the bottom line is that too little research has been done on prescription drug abuse among health care professionals.
"We need to do a better job educating doctors about the dangers of self-medicating and self-prescribing," she said. "Medical students get minimal training in addiction, which is pretty ridiculous."