Does Your Surgeon Have a Drinking Problem?

Study reveals 15 percent of surgeons reported having issues with alcohol abuse.

doctor drinking, doctor drinking alcohol, drinking on the job, doctor at work
According to the study, more than 15% of surgeons abuse alcohol. By contrast, in the general population, 9.4% meet the criteria for alcohol abuse problems. (Photo: Getty Images)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Every visit to the doctor's office is a leap of faith. When we go to a clinic or hospital and tell a stranger in scrubs our secret ailments, we trust that this professional is able to make the correct diagnosis out of the many possible ones.

But now, according to a recent anonymous online poll, published in the February issue of Archives of Surgery, some surgeons are taking a leap of faith of their own. Of the 7,197 respondents to the survey, nearly 14 percent of male surgeons and 26 percent of female surgeons reported an unhealthy dependence on alcohol—and 78 percent of the doctors reported medical errors in the past three months. Said Krista L. Kaups, MD, coauthor of the survey, to HealthLeaders Media: "Our goal is not to scare the public. That is the last thing we want to do. But we also want to say that people are paying a really high price."

The study calls on the healthcare community to institute early-detection and intervention procedures so doctors with alcohol issues can get the help they need. And according to survey leader Dr. Michael Oreskovich—a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle—that would include random drug screening: "...the findings do beg the question as to why it is that every other safety-sensitive profession has random drug screenings, while surgeons do not," he said. "Some anesthesiologists are finally undergoing this—pre-employment drug screens, for-cause drug screens and random drug screens—for the same reasons. And although it may not be a popular statement, there's no reason other interventionists involved in a high-risk practice should not be tested. And I think eventually we'll get there with surgeons."

As always, when choosing a healthcare provider, exercise your best judgment and trust your instincts. After all, this isn't a new problem for patients: as long as there have been doctors, we've always had to navigate between the good and the bad. 

If you know a doctor that might be putting patients at risk, here are some steps you can take to ensure he or she gets help and out of harm's way (courtesy of the NIH):

1. At the first sign of continual heavy drinking, have a colleague warn the physician of its dangers. There must be no delay or waiting for further developments—a course of therapy and counselling, and membership in Alcoholics Anonymous should be started immediately.

2. If a major offense is committed, such as appearing intoxicated in the operating room or while giving a lecture, the doctor must be confronted immediately and suspended by the hospital board. There is no place for a 'holier-than-thou' attitude. The doctor must be treated as a friend and colleague who is in trouble and given all the help needed, both in rehabilitation and preserving future practice.

3. The doctor must not return to work until he or she is well. Addiction and medical practice do not mix.

4. Following any return to work, the doctor will need to be under surveillance for two to three years by a physician willing to assume this responsibility.

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