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Why Doctors Abuse Prescription Drugs

Why Doctors Abuse Prescription DrugsNew research suggests self-medication is the primary reason for physician abuse of prescription drugs.

Investigators discovered physical or emotional pain, or even stress relief, drive a physician’s need for prescription drugs.

The study is found in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

Investigators say the findings are important implications for the development of prevention and recognition initiatives.

Researchers used focus groups with physicians in treatment for substance abuse. Research methodologies included anonymous discussions where the researchers talked about reasons for prescription drug abuse with 55 physicians in recovery.

The doctors were being monitored for substance abuse as part of their state’s physician health program. Sixty-nine percent of the physicians had abused prescription drugs, in addition to alcohol and illicit drugs.

Of five major themes that emerged in the focus groups, three were related to “self-medication” using prescription drugs. The doctors reported using medications for self-treatment of:

  • Physical pain. Many physicians initially developed their drug habit while using medications prescribed for chronic pain after trauma or surgery;
  • Emotional pain and psychiatric symptoms. Some doctors found that prescription drugs finally gave them an effective treatment for ” longstanding problems with anxiety or depression;”
  • Work and life stress. The physicians commonly used medications to relieve stress related to their personal or professional life.

Like other substance abusers, many of the physicians said they also used drugs recreationally — to “get high.”

Others said they used prescription drugs to treat symptoms of drug withdrawal. For many doctors, as their addiction problem progressed, managing withdrawal became an increasingly important reason for drug use.

The rate of drug misuse by doctors is similar to that in the general population. However, because they have access, physicians seem more likely to use prescription drugs.

Substance use is the most common cause of impairment among physicians. Their professional colleagues are required to refer or report them when substance abuse is suspected.

Physician health programs provide referrals for long-term treatment, monitoring, and drug screening, with a high success rate in achieving long-term freedom from substance abuse.

The study “provides additional evidence that health care professionals who misuse prescription drugs may represent a special population of substance users, who may use substances for various reasons and may require different methods of prevention and intervention to be most effective,” writes Lisa J. Merlo, Ph.D., M.P.E. and coauthors.

The researchers suggest that prevention efforts targeting prescription drug misuse by physicians should start during medical training, with required continuing education throughout their careers.

Education should include strong messages to doctors that they must seek qualified medical care for pain or other medical problems, as well as for psychiatric or emotional concerns, rather than trying to treat themselves.

Said Merlo and colleagues, “All physicians should learn the signs of substance abuse and the procedure for intervening with a colleague suspected of substance-related impairment.”

Source: Wolters Kluwer Health

Doctor holding pills and a prescription photo by shutterstock.

Why Doctors Abuse Prescription Drugs

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Why Doctors Abuse Prescription Drugs. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 7 Oct 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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