Survey of US Surgeons Shows Burnout Leads to Alcohol Abuse

When someone is preparing to go under the knife, they may worry about the pain they will experience when they wake up or that something may go wrong during the surgery, but there are probably few people who give a thought as to whether or not their surgeon is sober during the procedure.

A new survey conducted by Michael Oreskovich, MD of the University of Washington showed that more than 15 out of every 100 people getting surgery should be worried about this very thing. In fact, about 15 percent of surgeons are reportedly struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction.

Although this number is close to the number of individuals abusing alcohol in the general population, there was a role reversal between the genders in the survey. Male surgeons were found to abuse alcohol half as often as female surgeons, the exact opposite of data collected in the general public, in which men are twice as likely as women to exhibit behaviors associated with alcoholism.

Are There Factors That Influence a Surgeon’s Relationship With Alcohol?

The University of Washington researchers found certain features that were linked with higher rates of alcohol consumption and abuse among surgeons. These factors included:

  • Making an important surgical mistake within the last three months
  • Feeling burnt out
  • Experiencing depression
  • Being married or in a long-term relationship

On the positive side, the study discovered the following features that seemed to defend against developing a drinking problem:

  • Being a parent
  • Having more “on call” shifts
  • Working more hours each week
  • Being employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs

Researchers Call for Proactive Identification and Intervention for Surgeons

Of the 722 doctors who admitted to having made an important medical mistake in the prior three months, over three-quarters had an issue with alcohol. According to the study’s authors, these findings point to a need for proactive intervention for surgeons before they cause unnecessary harm to their patients. Oreskovich and his team wrote that measures should be taken by hospital administrations to “identify and treat a prevalent disorder that may affect the surgeon’s ability to practice with skill and safety.”

Although this survey has opened a dialogue about the medical field and addiction, much more research needs to be done to get an accurate picture. Only 29 percent of the surveys sent to 25,000 members of the American College of Surgeons were returned. This is considered a relatively low response rate; therefore, there may be biases in the results. For example, the rates of alcohol abuse may be higher because surgeons with a drinking problem may be less likely to fill out the survey. Also, the research focused solely on alcohol and obtained no information about prescription and illicit drug abuse.

Do these results shock you? How do you think the medical community can improve the issue of addiction among doctors and surgeons? Leave us a comment and tell us your thoughts below.




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