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Prescription Opioid Addiction in Healthcare Workers

Prescription opioid addiction is rising in the United States, and healthcare workers are not exempt from this epidemic. Unfortunately, they may be at even greater risk for addiction than the general population. This is because of the easy access to prescription opioids and the high-stress levels that come with the job. If you are a healthcare worker struggling with opioid addiction, help is available. But you don't have to face this alone.

Reasons for Prescription Opioid Addiction in Healthcare Workers

There are several reasons why healthcare workers may be at greater risk for opioid addiction.

1. Access to Prescription Opioids

The first reason healthcare workers may be at greater risk for opioid addiction is their access to prescription opioids. Unfortunately, the average person cannot easily access prescription opioids, and it can be challenging to obtain them.


As a result, many people turn to the streets to get a hold of them, which means they are at a higher risk of overdose and possibly death.


Since many prescription opioids can be legally prescribed for pain management, it can be tempting for healthcare providers to give out or hand out as many prescriptions as possible. The problem is that most opioid prescriptions are written for a short time (generally three months), and some of these medications have no "renewal" requirements. As a result, opioid addicts can quickly get their hands on more opioids than they need.

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2. Stressful Work Environment

While every job carries some stress, healthcare workers are exposed to a greater number and variety of stressful situations daily. These can include the complex cases they are assigned to, emergency rooms filled with patients, or witnessing the death of loved ones.


In one study, researchers determined that stress levels of medical personnel (which include nurses, doctors, pharmacists, etc.) can range from moderate to high, especially among those working in emergency departments.


According to the researchers, this is likely due to many factors, such as these workers having to make crucial decisions in highly stressful situations and having little time to process their emotions.


In addition, these stressors are likely further exacerbated by the fact that most of these workers are women. As a result, women are more likely than men to have higher stress hormones.


Healthcare professionals are frequently stressed, both emotionally and physically. Many workers must work long hours, deal with stubborn patients, and perform challenging procedures. As a result, healthcare workers often feel like they are constantly "on." This constant high alertness can make coping harder when exposed to opioids.

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Expert Contributor

Dr. Williams presently serves on the board of Directors for two non-profit service organizations. He holds a Master’s degree in Human Services from Lincoln University, Philadelphia, Pa and a Ph.D. with a concentration in Clinical Psychology from Union Institute and University. In Cincinnati, Ohio. He is licensed to practice addictions counseling in both New Jersey and Connecticut and has a pending application as a practicing Psychologist in New Jersey.

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3. Easy to Rationalize Use

Healthcare workers are in a unique position where they can easily rationalize the use of opioids. They may think that because they have access to these drugs, it is okay to use them for pain relief or to cope with stress. However, the reality is that when healthcare professionals use opioids recreationally or inappropriately, they may be putting themselves at risk for overdose and addiction.

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4. Dealing with Addicts

Many of them are dealing with addicts, or recovering patients, all day long. They can get into arguments with these people, escalating into fights. They can also be confronted by family members addicted to drugs and other patients in drug treatment programs. All of these situations can make healthcare workers feel helpless.

5. Less Awareness in Lower Staff

Since healthcare workers deal with addicts daily, it's not unusual to see one or two addicts in the emergency room every day. But many healthcare workers only hear about opioid addiction once they become addicted. This is a very stressful experience and often leads to depression.

6. Self-Medicating Underlying Mental Health Issues

Healthcare workers often use their medications to manage their underlying mental health issues. These can include anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. While many of them understand that drugs like Vicodin or OxyContin are not healthy, we often forget that when it comes to pain, we do not have to choose between the temporary relief of pharmaceuticals and the pain relief of self-medication.

Patterns of Addiction and Substance Abuse Among HCPs

A study of more than 3,000 healthcare professionals (HCPs) found that:- 12% had engaged in prescrip­tion drug misuse in the past year- 3% had misused painkillers specifically- 6% had misused other drugs- HCPs were more likely than the general population to be employed full time, have a higher income and be insured. Another study found that HCPs are more likely to abuse alcohol and prescription drugs than the general population.


How Can You Recognize a Drug-Impaired Co-Worker?

Some signs and symptoms may help you recognize if drugs impair a colleague. These include:


  • Frequent absences or tardiness

  • Frequent mistakes or errors in judgment

  • Slurred speech

  • Bloodshot eyes

  • Disheveled appearance

  • Erratic or violent behavior

If you are concerned that drugs may impair a colleague, the best thing to do is talk to them about it. Let them know you are concerned and offer to help them get the help they need.

What Can You Do If You Are Addicted to Prescription Opioids?

If you are addicted to prescription opioids, there is help available. You don't have to face this alone. Several treatment options are available, and your circumstances will determine the best action. Treatment may include:


- Medication-assisted treatment

- Individual counseling

- Group therapy

- Inpatient or outpatient treatment

If you are a healthcare worker struggling with opioid addiction, know that you are not alone. There is help available. You can get through this.

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Reasons for prescription opioid addiction in healthcare workers
1. Access to prescription opioids
2. Stressful Work Environment
3. Easy to Rationalize Use
4. Dealing with Addicts

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5. Less Awareness In Lower Staff
6. Self-Medicating Underlying Mental Health Issues
Patterns of Addiction and Substance Abuse Among HCPs
What Can You Do If You Are Addicted to Prescription Opioids?
How Can You Recognize a Drug-Impaired Co-Worker?
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