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Drug Abuse Among Medical Residents On The Rise: Growing Number Of Anesthesiology Residents Admit To Abusing Prescription Meds

Substance Abuse Among Physicians
More medical residents are abusing drugs and alcohol than expected. Reuters

Millions of Americans suffer from a substance use disorder (SUD) which can lead to various medical concerns such as psychiatric disorders or physical health complications. A common misconception surrounding the medical community involves physicians who are presumably exempt from substance abuse. A research team led by Dr. David O. Warner from the Mayo Clinic found that anesthesiology residents were at risk of developing a substance use disorder due to the accessibility of potent drugs such as opioids administered intravenously.

"To our knowledge, this report provides the first comprehensive description of the epidemiology and outcomes of SUD for any in-training physician specialty group, showing that the incidence of SUD has increased over the study period and that relapse rates are not improving," the authors stated. "Despite the considerable attention paid to this issue, there is no evidence that the incidence and outcomes of SUD among these physicians are improving over time."

Dr. Warner and his colleagues analyzed the records of 44,612 physicians enrolled in anesthesiology residency training programs between July 1, 1975 and July 1, 2009. The research team combed through evidence focusing on incidences and outcomes of substance abuse among residents in the United States. Participants were asked to report incidences of substance abuse up until residency training ended and relapse until Dec. 31, 2010.

Results of the study indicated that 0.86 percent of respondents, 384 physicians, admitted to suffering from a substance use disorder during anesthesiology training. 7.3 percent, or 28 physicians, died during training as a result of substance abuse. 43 percent of physicians who survived experienced at least one relapse within 30 years of their first episode. Substances commonly abused by residents include IV opioids, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, anesthetics and oral opioids.

According to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), 2.3 million adults in the United States suffer from a substance use disorder. Substance abuse can also serve as an indicator for other psychological conditions including depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. 40 percent of physician suicides are considered alcohol-related while 20 percent are associated with drug abuse. 

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