50 years ago, drug abuse was higher among physicians than the public | Science News

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50 Years Ago

50 years ago, drug abuse was higher among physicians than the public

Excerpt from the April 5, 1969 issue of Science News

7:00am, March 28, 2019

DRUGGED DOCTORS  Whether now or 50 years ago, doctors have been stressed and overworked — and some have turned to easily accessible drugs and alcohol to help take off the edge.

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Science News cover from April 5, 1969
The physician as addict

The rate of drug abuse or addiction among physicians is from 30 to 100 times that of the general public.... The American Medical Association estimates that some 60,000 of the country’s 316,000 doctors misuse drugs of various kinds. The drug abuser among physicians has a predisposing personality for addiction, and suffers from overwork and fatigue. Since drugs are readily available, they are an occupational hazard. — Science News, April 5, 1969 


The “30 to 100 times” figure was found to be inflated, partly as a result of statistical methods used at the time. But drug abuse remains a problem among physicians today. A 2018 review in Current Opinion in Anesthesiology says 15.4 percent of doctors say they abuse drugs or alcohol, compared with an estimated 12.6 percent among the public. Most commonly abused are alcohol, painkillers like opioids and stimulants such as cocaine. Abuse likely occurs due to easy access and work stress, as well as burnout, which a 2018 report in Mayo Clinic Proceedings says affects 54.3 percent of doctors.


D. Tawfik et al. Physician burnout, well-being, and work unit safety grades in relationship to reported medical errors. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Vol. 93, November 2018, p. 1571. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocp.2018.05.014. 

E. Bryson. The opioid epidemic and the current prevalence of substance use disorder in anesthesiologists. Current Opinion in Anaesthesiology. Vol. 31, June 2018, p. 388. doi: 10.1097/ACO.0000000000000589. 

P. Hughes et al. Prevalence of substance use among US physicians. JAMA. Vol. 267, May 6, 1992, p. 2333. doi: 10.1001/jama.1992.03480170059029.

Further Reading

N. Seppa. Chronic stress can wreak havoc on the body. Science News. Vol. 187, March 7, 2015, p. 18.

C. Czeisler. It’s time to reform work hours for resident physicians. Science News. Vol. 176, October 24, 2009, p. 36.

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