Signs and Symptoms of Addiction in Medical Professionals

Given ready access to supplies of pharmaceutical drugs, medical professionals are known to develop addiction issues. They also work at jobs that are stressful, and that can lead to the use of drugs to maintain long schedules, relieve anxiety or just to let off steam. The obvious administrative concerns about abuse of privileges, however, should be superseded by worries about the well-being of those medical professionals. Signs of addiction should be monitored, and treatment options should be made available if help is needed.

Numerous Issues

One of the biggest problems in searching for signs of addiction among medical professionals is that they have access to so many potential choices. For example, physicians are five times more likely than the general population to misuse opioid pain medications. Nurses, surgical technicians and even on-site support staff may have the opportunity to gain medications from supply closets. It should not be assumed that clever individuals will fail to find ways to circumvent security and control medications.

Compounding the problem is that on-site pharmaceuticals are far from the only sources of trouble in the industry. Alcohol consumption is notably higher, and about 10 to 15% of physicians are believed to suffer from some type of substance use disorder. Illicit drugs can also be a source of trouble, perhaps more so because medical professionals often feel confident they know how to handle such substances.

Many medical professionals have also developed coping skills from years of difficult study and long hours of work that often make them more adept at masking issues. While it’s easy to dismiss such problems, you should try to keep an eye out for anything that persists, such as:

  • Mental haziness
  • Physical stumbles
  • Mood changes
  • Unprovoked outbursts

Some in the medical world will go to great lengths to beat drug-testing regimens, and they often have a better idea than the general public how to do it.

This makes tracking down specific signs of addiction especially difficult. While it’s possible to keep an eye out for unique symptoms associated with common substances, such as alcohol, opioids, cocaine and amphetamines, it may be harder to spot unusual drugs that are being misused. High-functioning addiction is common in the industry. For these reasons, it’s often wisest to look at the top-level indicators that someone is going through a rough patch due to drug misuse.

Choosing Longer Hours

Most medical professionals are happy when their names aren’t up on the schedule. One potential sign of trouble that should merit further scrutiny is when employees go out of their way to get longer hours or more difficult shifts, especially overnight shifts. This is often an attempt to opportunistically gain access to supply areas. People may come in and out of storage areas less often during these shifts, making it easier to acquire drugs. Some individuals will also seek busy shifts in order to grab items during hectic moments. This can make it harder to account for the loss of drugs as things get moved around during events like emergency surgeries.

Asking for Money

While it’s understandable that lower-paid individuals or those just out of school might be hard up for cash, it should be a huge red flag if an experienced medical professional, especially a doctor, is asking for money. People in the industry tend to make better-than-normal wages, and they usually get enough hours to maintain at least a middle-class standard of living without outside financial help. It’s hard to picture an MD scrounging up money for drugs, but the same behaviors that are signs of addiction among stereotypical addicts are there for nearly everyone who has a problem.

Energy Swings

Everyone in the medical world is likely to feel drained at some point in their careers, but you should watch out for individuals who exhibit radical swings in energy levels, especially later in shifts. No one gets more energy after a 10-hour shift no matter how great the break room and rest areas might be at a facility. It’s understandable that someone might get a boost of adrenaline from an emergency, but energy that comes out of nowhere is definitely one of the signs of addiction to uppers.

Patient Complaints

Patients themselves are often the first to notice that something is off with a medical professional. Only seeing doctors and nurses every once in a while makes patients more able to notice shifts in behavior from several months ago. Indicators to keep tabs on include:

  • The total number of complaints going up
  • Any serious incidents involving clients, such as arguments
  • All reports of uncomfortable situations with patients

Even if the issue ends up not being drug misuse, it’s still a problem that every practice or facility should try to address as quickly as possible.

Disregard for Harm

Many types of drugs rewire the brain’s appetite for risk, making users more likely to engage in dangerous actions. A doctor who has handled procedures by the book, for example, should not become one who suddenly wants to take shortcuts. A noticeable difference in the handling of risks should always be a source of concern.

Indications may be more subtle, and some may seem closer to age-related dementia symptoms than what we think of drug use symptoms. For example, a person may become more inclined toward unwanted physical touching. The persistence of such behavior, especially after it has been noted and the individual is asked to stop, may be one of the signs of addictions. Take particular note if the behavior seems to come out of nowhere. In many cases, the person may be caught off guard themselves by their conduct.


Wearing long sleeves at inappropriate times of year is a common indicator of attempts to cover up intravenous drug use. Compounding the issue is that many people, regardless of whether they have a problem, will note that air-conditioning levels in some facilities are frequently quite cold. You don’t want to start a fight with someone over sleeves, but it’s a sign you should not ignore, particularly if you see other indicators. Other indicators to watch for include:

  • Wearing sunglasses at inappropriate times, especially indoors
  • Carrying a backpack that wasn’t around before
  • Dirty or wrinkled clothes
  • Clothes with unusual smells

Excessive Time in the Bathroom

Having a bad day and needing to be in the bathroom a while is not inherently a source of worry. If it keeps happening, however, that should be a concern. Should the individual have a valid medical problem, then they’re certainly in the right place.

Those who spend too much time in the bathroom should not be automatically assumed to be doing drugs on-site. Some may be experiencing medical complications from drug use. For example, opioid users often experience constipation, and they may need more time to work up bowel movements. Other employees may simply need time to themselves because they’re not feeling well from drugs, or they may be retreating in order to avoid exhaustion symptoms becoming obvious.

Skipping Meetings

Nobody likes meetings, but making a habit of skipping them or being late may be an indication a medical professional doesn’t have it together. It’s doubtful they made it through all the necessary school without some discipline, so this should be seen as a major red flag. A decline in discipline often accompanies an increase in drug abuse. This can arise from a number of problems, including mental cloudiness and lethargy that often accompany drug use.

Irritability and Confrontation

This is another of the signs of addiction that can lurk undetected in the medical working environment. People using drugs often become more irritable, especially as changes in their brain chemistry occur. While it’s a stereotype of practitioners that they can be abrasive, an individual shouldn’t suddenly become more confrontational than they previously were. Many drugs, particularly opioids and cocaine, can drive individuals into a near constant need to obtain a fix, and this often makes them irritable when they have to sit through meetings, conversations or consultations.


Many drugs trigger changes in the brain’s motor functions. This is especially the case with opioids and alcohol. If a medical professional exhibits unusual symptoms of clumsiness, they should be pulled off shifts immediately. A conversation about the sources of the trouble should be started, and the possibility of a drug misuse disorder should be brought up.

Be aware that many individuals will invoke exhaustion defenses, and some may absolutely be in the right. If their hours are cut back and the problem continues or worsens, that should be taken to be an indication of real trouble.

Calling Off

Medical jobs can be tough, and people are going to call off from time to time. If an employee starts calling off a lot, especially outside of peak times of the year like flu season, that may be a sign of trouble. Some medical professionals will be too proud to come into work wrecked from the symptoms of drug use. If the situation continues, having a close co-worker pay a visit to their place may be worth the effort.

Withdrawal From Relationships

Medical offices and hospitals have a tendency to become chummy workplaces. Not everyone is going to be friends, but outright social withdrawal should be a concern. Notably, if two or even a handful of individuals all have drug problems, they may create their own social circle within the larger group. Should that particular group seem not engaged to a fault, it may be time to identify whether members exhibit signs of addiction.

Weight Loss or Gain

A number of drugs, especially opioids and amphetamines, can severely suppress appetite. This can lead to dramatic drops in weight, often very quickly. While less common, weight gain may also occur among individuals who have had a breakdown in discipline accompanying drug use.

Getting Treatment

Working with medical professionals to get into treatment programs can be especially difficult. Many will see the idea as shameful, and some will be rightly worried about the status of their licenses and credentials. The industry actually has standards in place for dealing with individuals who have drug use issues, even in cases where pharmaceuticals have been stolen from supplies or prescription pads have been falsified or misused. Most governing bodies in the industry have processes in place for medical professionals to submit to monitoring as part of reinstatement once they’ve completed a treatment program.

Being supportive during this process is essential, but no operation should take unnecessary risks to protect doctors, nurses or staff. The foremost goal is to ensure that patients are in a safe environment, and firing truly problematic employees is an option that needs to stay on the table. This, however, isn’t a solution for someone who operates a sole practice and has a problem.

Fortunately, treatment options for medical professionals often yield good results. As high as 90% of professionals in the field are able to recover with support. In many cases, simply getting the topic out in the open may let someone know they can seek help and expect support from their co-workers and bosses.