Healthcare Workers at High Risk of Addiction and Overdose
A new report finds that nurses, behavioral healthcare therapists, and social workers are at high risk of drug addiction and overdose, highlighting the fact that anyone can struggle with an addiction to drugs and alcohol.
What the Findings Show
A paper titled Fatal Drug Overdose Risks of Healthcare Workers in the United States found that nurses, social and behavioral healthcare workers, and healthcare support workers are at particularly high risk of suffering from addiction and experiencing overdoses. Compared with employed adults in other fields, healthcare workers are more than twice as likely to struggle with drug addiction and are more than twice as likely to die from an overdose.
To arrive at those findings, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City analyzed data from 176,000 healthcare workers aged 26 and older between 2008 and 2019. That health data was compared with health information for 1.6 million non-healthcare workers who worked full-time in various fields.
Of the healthcare workers, about 0.07% died of a drug overdose during the study period. Approximately 85% of the deaths were caused by opioid painkillers. For non-healthcare workers, about 0.03% died from drug overdoses, with 76% of their overdose deaths attributed to opioid painkillers.
Not only are healthcare workers becoming addicted to drugs at a rate more than twice that of non-healthcare workers, but their drug of choice – the drug that often leads to their death – is almost always prescription opioids.
Risk Factors Faced by Those Working in the Medical and Social Work Sectors
Several factors likely contribute to heightened addiction and overdose risk for healthcare workers. “Healthcare workers are often subject to incredible amounts of stress,” says Dr. Smita Das, a professor of addiction at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, who commented on the study’s findings but was not involved in the research. “Early on, this has to do with rigorous training and costs of that training, and later it has to do with job responsibilities.” Das pointed out how the stresses of the job and the broader stress-related implications of the college debt that healthcare workers accrue to learn the skills they need for their profession all likely push healthcare workers to use mind-altering substances as a coping mechanism.
“Healthcare workers are often subject to
incredible amounts of stress…”
Another factor is occupational injuries. Injuries are quite common, especially for home healthcare aides, and are among the highest of all occupations. Such injuries often lead to healthcare workers being prescribed opioid painkillers, which can be addictive even when used as intended.
Healthcare workers also have greater access to opioid painkiller drugs, as they are often required to collect, handle, and dispense painkillers for patients. Greater access to such drugs, higher risk for occupational injuries, and high stress and emotional hardship connected to their work puts healthcare workers at much higher risk for addiction and overdose.
Finally, healthcare workers report higher confidence in managing prescription drug use. That is likely the result of their being informed and educated in the broader medical field. Unfortunately, simply understanding prescription drugs and how they work does not safeguard one from becoming addicted to them, especially when one is using them without a prescription.
The Importance of Checking in With Your Loved Ones
The old narrative that addiction only affects certain groups of people is false. Even in what are often considered “white collar” industries, people are still at risk, and those risks must be analyzed and adjusted for. “People in healthcare are a unique group, taking on the responsibility of caring for others and often having to sacrifice their well-being,” said Dr. Das. “As we see overdose rates continue to increase in general in the time period of this study, the unique impact on healthcare has not been examined before.” In the future, it will be essential to reduce the stigma around addiction and to treat it as the health crisis that it is, a crisis that any American may experience.
Drug addiction and alcohol abuse are life-altering conditions that can happen to anyone, often robbing families of their loved ones, sometimes for just a few years, but sometimes for life. If you know someone who is addicted to drugs and alcohol and who cannot stop using these substances on their own, please get them help at a qualified drug treatment center as soon as possible. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
- AIM. “Fatal Drug Overdose Risks of healthcare Workers in the United States.” Annals of Internal Medicine, 2023. acpjournals.org
- USNews. “Nurses, Other healthcare Workers at High Risk of Drug Overdose.” U.S. News, 2023. usnews.com