Study: 15% of surgeons abuse alcohol

Fifteen percent of surgeons suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, according to a study in the February Archives of Surgery. Through an online, anonymous poll, respondents revealed that surgeons cited higher rates of alcohol abuse, compared to 8 percent to 12 percent among the public, according to U.S. News & World Report's HealthDay.

Surgeons who were burned out and depressed were more likely to have alcohol abuse or dependence, the study states. Surgeons who said they had made a major medical mistake during the previous three months also were more likely to be struggling with alcohol abuse or dependence, HealthDay noted.

However, the survey "may not accurately reflect the true incidence of alcoholism among surgeons," the authors warned. They cautioned that this study was limited, in that only 29 percent of people responded to the poll, according to medpage Today. The authors also noted that they don't know if those with alcohol abuse or dependence are more or less likely to answer surveys.

And although surgeons might report higher alcohol abuse than the general public, the study didn't offer correlation between the prevalence of alcohol abuse and medical errors.

"The chance of a patient being injured by an impaired surgeon is really very uncommon. Something like one in 10,000. So it just doesn't happen very much," lead study author Michael Oreskovich, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, told HealthDay. He did, however, note that although other safety-sensitive professions use random drug screenings, surgeons do not.

Advocates for impaired physicians champion the study as an important first step.

"The most important thing here is to note that physicians are not immune from these kinds of problems," said John Fromson, a codirector of postgraduate medical education at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who wrote an editorial on study. "I don't think patients and their families need to be alarmed. But the reality is that the more we talk about it, the greater the chances of recognizing the factors and stressors that contribute to it among those who need help."

For more information:
- read the HealthDay article
- check out the study abstract
- read the medpage Today article
- here's the Fromson editorial (subscription required)