Drug Abuse Among Nurses

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Drug abuse among nurses can harm many lives

Drug abuse among nurses is a serious issue that can affect patient care and safety, hospital budgets, and a nurse's career.

Prevalence of Drug Abuse among Nurses

The specific prevalence of substance abuse among nurses seems to be up for discussion. Thus far there hasn't been any completely conclusive evidence. No surprise there. Unless a hospital is conducting random drug screening, and not all do, researchers are relying on the testimonies of nursing staff - who may not feel like giving up personal information that could cost them their job. Plus, even if a hospital or clinic gives random drug tests, by definition, they're random, not indicative of the entire nursing population. That said, studies widely vary when it comes to statistics related to substance abuse among nurses.

A mid-sized study conducted in the 90s, relates that nurses are no more likely to abuse drugs than their non-nursing peers. The same study notes that nurses are actually less likely to abuse alcohol than the general population.

Another study completed in the late 1990s ignores the fact that nurses may or may not be as at risk as the general public, focusing more on the fact that the The American Nurses Association reports that up to 20 percent of nurses may have substance abuse issues.

Prevalence of Drug Abuse by Nursing Specialty

One interesting and rather large study; Substance use among nurses: differences between specialties (Am J Public Health. 1998 April; 88(4): 581-585), reports the following from their data, and a few nuggets from past data as well:

  • There are an estimated 40,000 nurses in the U.S. experiencing alcoholism.
  • Studies find higher rates of smoking among psychiatric, critical care, and emergency nurses and lower tobacco use among oncology (cancer) and pediatric nurses.
  • Odds of marijuana use are 3.5 times higher among emergency nurses.
  • Pediatric and emergency nurses reported a higher use of cocaine than other specialties.
  • Oncology nurses reported the highest overall drug use - for all substances combined.
  • Binge drinking was highest among oncology, emergency, and critical care nurses.
  • Prescription drug addiction was not as varied across nursing specialties. However, oncology, rehabilitation, and psychiatric nurses did report a tad more prescription drug abuse than other specialties.

Although the study noted that drug abuse among nurses did not vary much percentage wise from the general population, the types of drug use did vary. Nurses were less likely than the general population to smoke or take cocaine, more likely to abuse prescription drugs, and had the same probability to binge drink as the general population.

Negative Consequences of Drug Abuse among Registered Nurses

Drug abuse can be devastating for any one person, and their family and friends. However, when a nurse has a substance abuse problem, the effects can be further reaching. A nurse guilty of patient harm as a direct result of substance abuse, will still be affected, as will the nurse's family and friends, but, in this situation, the substance abuse will also affect a patient and the patient's family and friends. It's a dangerous and harmful situation.

Negative consequences of substance abuse among nurses can include:

  • Patient mistreatment, including incorrect basic care, medication errors, and abuse.
  • Patient death.
  • Higher hospital or clinic costs associated with legalities of patient mistreatment, stolen drugs, lost wages, training, and re-hiring.
  • Nurses may lose time due to treatment, thus receive lower wages.
  • Nurses can lose their job and even their entire career depending on the damage substance abuse has created in their life.

Lastly, the short and long-term emotional costs cannot be easily estimated, but are likely high; for nurses, patients, peers of nurses abusing, and everyone else that a care provider's substance abuse touches.

Prevention of Substance Abuse among Nurses

Drug abuse among nurses occurs for the same reasons drug abuse occurs in the general population. Stress, emotional disorders, anxiety and depression, money issues, and trauma - nurses are not immune. Some studies and nurse advocates feel that nurses are more likely to abuse drugs because their jobs are so stressful and that low staffing contributes to the problem. This may or may not be true. One, no study has ever proven this. Two, nursing is a high-stress career, but it's not an excuse for patient harm. Why someone abuses drugs is less important than compromised patient care. That said, many hospitals do focus on helping to identify and treat nurses with substance abuse issues rather than firing nurses outright.

Many state nursing organizations, including colleges of nursing, and hospitals, and clinics have peer support groups in place that recognize and offer assistance to nurses with drug abuse problems. Peer support groups are effective because they train nurses to look for warning signs of drug abuse among their peers, and also what to do once they recognize abuse. Many nursing colleges have now worked peer drug abuse spotting into the curriculum.

Ongoing substance abuse prevention training is one method of helping to stop addiction before it starts; especially programs that have a stress assessment module included. It's important to train nurses about various life coping skills that don't include drugs.

Training to accept recovering nurses back into the fold is important as well. Some nurses are met with significant issues of sabotage from other staff when coming back to work. This can make recovery harder.

Support and drug recovery resources:

Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers

Alcoholics Anonymous

Narcotics Anonymous

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Drug Abuse Among Nurses