Fear of losing jobs, licenses keep doctors from seeking treatment for substance use disorders

Pills in pill container
A study found many Danish physicians hide their substance use problem for decades without seeking outside treatment. (Getty/Viperfzk)

A fear of being dismissed or losing their license keep many doctors from seeking treatment for substance use disorders.

A study of Danish doctors, published in Addiction Research & Theory, found that instead of seeking help, some doctors attempt self-treatment for their substance abuse. The study, by researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark, was based on in-depth interviews with physicians who had recovered from substance use disorders that included alcohol and prescription and illegal drugs.

The doctors’ experiences included fears of being revealed as a substance user and self-medicating. Unlike other people struggling with substance abuse disorders, physicians can write prescriptions and have even greater access to prescription drugs.

Previous studies have shown that many physicians do not seek treatment for mental health issues because of worries about their medical license. A study published last year by Mayo Clinic researchers found that despite growing burnout, nearly 40% of the 5,829 doctors surveyed said they would be reluctant to seek formal medical care to treat a mental health condition because of concerns about repercussions to their medical license.

The Danish study also found that doctors tend to cover up for colleagues when they suspect they have an alcohol or drug problem rather than encourage them to enter treatment. Many doctors looked at it as a private problem.

RELATED: Probe by state medical licensing boards may keep physicians from seeking mental health treatment

Fears of losing their license and right to prescribe cause many Danish physicians to hide their problem for decades without seeking outside treatment, the researchers said. Often it takes a “wake-up call,” such as serious illness or because relatives or employers give them an ultimatum, before physicians enter treatment.

"There is a need to look at how to open far more dialogue about the issues so that we can optimize help for those doctors who are affected by substance use disorder,” the study’s lead author Johanne Korsdal Sorensen, Ph.D., said in an announcement.

A survey of female physicians last year found that a fear of stigma as well as possible sanctions by state licensing boards keep many doctors from revealing mental health issues. Another study concurred that state medical licensing boards, which ask more questions about doctors’ mental health than physical health that could lead to impairment, may promote stigma and keep physicians from seeking help. The studies are disturbing in that physicians have high rates of suicide and depression.

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