Study Focuses on Substance Abuse Among Health Care Professionals

Substance-related impairment among health care professionals comes with significant consequences for patient safety, so appropriate recognition and intervention for substance abuse is essential within this group. Lisa Merlo, Ph.D., M.P.E., Chief of the Division of Undergraduate Education, and Director of Psychotherapy Training, Psychiatry Residency Program, the University of Florida, Gainesville, will present her findings on this subject in Poster 16, “Quality of Life Among Healthcare Professionals in Recovery,” from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. today in the Galleria Exhibit Hall.

Results of her study may help shorten the interval between the point at which a health care professional develops a substance-related problem and the point at which he or she enters treatment.

“Early treatment can significantly reduce morbidity and mortality,” she says. “Unfortunately, health care professionals experience obstacles to seeking treatment, including fears regarding the potential for negative impact on their careers and financial stability. I hypothesized that health care professionals in recovery would actually report improved quality of life during recovery compared to active addiction, and I anticipated that such data might give hope to health care professionals who would benefit from seeking treatment.”

Dr. Merlo, who also directs her institution’s Addiction Medicine Public Health Research Group, says that in the summer of 2010, she and her colleagues conducted a survey of health care professionals monitored by Florida’s impaired professionals program to assess this important topic. In general, she says, the professionals reported significantly improved quality of life across all domains since initiating abstinence from substance use.

“It was noteworthy that improvements in family functioning, work/career, and financial stability were significantly greater for professionals in sustained recovery compared to those in early recovery, suggesting that quality of life continues to improve as the professionals adapt to a sober lifestyle,” she says.

Dr. Merlo says that it may seem obvious to addiction treatment professionals that participation in addiction treatment programs is not associated with long-term, negative consequences for health care professionals, but it is important to produce data documenting that fact.

Dr. Merlo says that health care professionals with substance-related impairments remain an understudied population that needs attention.

“Addiction treatment for health care professionals may save their families, careers, and financial stability, in addition to improving their overall quality of life. If you suspect that a health care professional suffers from addiction, referring him or her to get treatment is unlikely to have long-term negative consequences and may save his or her life.”