Alcoholism in the medical profession

Alcoholism in the Medical Profession: Causes and Effects

Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals go out on a limb to treat or save their patients. And just like any other person, they have the right to drink. The problem, however, is the alarming number of healthcare professionals who abuse alcohol.

Many studies show that physicians consume a large amount of alcohol. Rosta’s study demonstrates that approximately 6-8% of American doctors are alcoholics.

The same can be said with nurses. According to a Nursing 2020 Journal report, about 10% of RN are dependent on either drugs or alcohol.

Alcoholism is bad by itself, but the risks are further magnified in doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. People’s lives, after all, depend on their critical thinking and judgment – both of which could be impaired by alcohol.

Why Healthcare Professionals Drink

why healthcare professionals drink alcohol

According to a study by Juntunen et al., doctors (and other medical professionals too) drink because of the following factors:

Stress and burnout

It cannot be denied that medicine and nursing are stressful fields. The work environment is stressful enough as it is, add to that the administrators and patients who are relying on you to be more than perfect.

According to a US News report, approximately 1/3 of physicians have felt burnout at one point in their careers. In fact, doctors are 15% more likely to experience burnout compared to other professions. As for nurses, says that about 15.6% of the workforce report burnout.

To make up for these feelings, doctors and nurses often turn to alcohol. For these people, drinking can make them forget (albeit temporarily) the stresses that come with the job.

The ‘highly responsible’ nature of the profession

Healthcare professionals bear a big brunt of responsibility. One small misstep can lead to loss of limb or life. Because of the high stakes of the practice, doctors and nurses often find themselves drinking. For them, alcohol can help mellow out with the pressures of medicine or nursing.

Disappointment with career

Disappointment is a drinking trigger, according to the book “What is Alcoholics Anonymous?” Sorrow is enough to trigger alcoholism in regular people, much more doctors and nurses. This is especially the case for professionals who feel that they have become stagnant in their careers.

Suicidal thoughts

According to a CNBC report, at least one doctor commits suicide every day. Experts attribute this high rate to the stress and pressures that come with the medical practice. Unfortunately, suicidal individuals often find themselves mercy of alcohol.

General dissatisfaction with life

Doctors may have the money to buy everything, but they can be as dissatisfied in life as most of us. According to a VOX report, about 29% of medical residents experience depression. Since alcohol may help numb sadness, many health professionals often end up drinking drink alcohol.

Early life drinking patterns

If the doctor or nurse has been drinking since he/she was young, there’s a high chance that he/she might continue drinking throughout his/her work life.

Older age

Older people, be it a doctor or nurse, are more likely to drink. Unfortunately, they are more likely to get drunk immediately, compared to when they were younger. That’s because aging lowers the body’s tolerance for alcohol. The consequence? An old healthcare professional who loves drinking is more likely to inflict unintentional injuries upon their patients.

Who is More Likely to Abuse Alcohol?

While healthcare professionals are generally more prone to abuse alcohol, certain populations within this group are more likely to be alcoholics. As per Juntunen et al.’s study, the following people are at a higher risk of abusing alcohol:

  • Doctors working in community health centers
  • Physicians taking long leaves
  • Younger doctors disappointed with the work atmosphere or their careers
  • Older physicians immersed in their jobs
  • female doctors in surgical specialties

The Effects of Having Alcoholic Healthcare Professionals

Alcoholic doctors and nurses greatly affect the healthcare delivery system. If these users are not treated immediately, the following events can take place:

Poor delivery of healthcare services

Doctors and nurses, more often than not, are high-functioning alcoholics. They can do their jobs without fail – even if they’re blasted out of their minds. While this works most of the time, it can eventually affect the way that they deliver healthcare services.

Alcohol, especially in excessive doses, can affect the mind. It can hamper one’s critical thinking and decision-making skills, eventually leading to poor judgment. Unfortunately for the patient, a drunk doctor or nurse may be the difference between life and death

Problems within the workforce

Alcoholic medical professionals can be a problem for their co-workers. Being with an inebriated person is hard enough as it is, so you can only imagine how it’s like to work with a drunkard. This can lead to misunderstandings and fights that could further affect healthcare service delivery to the patients.

Unmotivated, non-compliant patients

Physicians, the medical experts that they are, should serve as the finest example when it comes to a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, the way they abuse alcohol can have an impact on their patients’ well-being. Such is shown in Rosta’s study. Here, the author explained that a doctor’s health behavior can affect his client’s motivation to make lifestyle changes.

To wit, a patient whose doctor is often inebriated may find it harder to recover from alcoholism himself. After all, the physician he looks up to is just as plastered as he is. With that being said, doctors and other healthcare professionals should be treated for alcohol abuse right away – so their patients can imitate their actions.

How Physicians Can Fight Alcoholism

Treatment for healthcare professionals is vital so that they can provide optimal healthcare services to their clients. With that being said, this special population can benefit from hospital wellness groups and special 12-step recovery programs such as International Doctors in Alcoholics Anonymous.

There are also Physician Health Programs (PHP) that can help you get on the road to recovery. Its results are actually quite promising. According to a Physicians Weekly report, 75 to 90% of doctors who engage with PHP enjoyed long-term recovery.

As for nurses and other healthcare professionals, Smart Recovery offers a workbook for this special, pressure-driven population.


Medical professionals represent a group that is more likely to abuse alcohol. There are some sub-populations, however, who are at a higher risk of alcoholism. Stress and burnout are huge factors, as well as the ‘highly responsible’ nature of the work.

Unfortunately, having alcoholic healthcare professionals can lead to poor service delivery, workforce problems, and non-compliant patients. Although this is the case, doctors and nurses can turn to special programs that can help them recover from alcoholism.
Latest posts by Raychel Ria Agramon, BSN, RN, MPM (see all)

What do you think? Please share your thoughts.