Studies show pandemic increases risk of stress, substance abuse in medical field

Coronavirus

LOS ANGELES (NewsNation Now) — New peer-reviewed studies published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine revealed an increased risk of stress and substance abuse among health care workers due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As essential workers face increased infection risks, they also face higher rates of stress from the pandemic.

The recently developed COVID Stress Scales (CSS) categorizes stressors from the pandemic into five categories: danger and contamination fear, social and economic stress, traumatic stress symptoms, checking and reassurance-seeking behavior, and xenophobia.

Recent findings suggest that the five factors of the CSS form a COVID Stress Syndrome. In the general population, each of these factors can contribute to increased substance use and abuse risk. These factors can be compounded in essential workers and place this group at particularly high risk for substance use and abuse. 

It’s a hidden secret rarely discussed openly in the medical community: health care workers struggling with addiction. Dr. Faye Jamali says she was one of them after a slip at her children’s birthday party caused her to fracture her wrist in 2007.

“My orthopedic surgeon at the time prescribed me, I think, 100 pills of Percocet and I think he gave me extra because I think he thought … you’re a physician, so you don’t have to call me back for a refill, here you go,” said Jamali.

The then 40-year-old mom of two says she started taking the opioids as a way to relieve stress. From there, she started to treat her migraines by injecting narcotics to reduce the pain.

“I kept telling myself, ‘I’m a 40 something-year-old physician, I’m a mom, I’m a soccer mom, I’m a wife, I can’t be an addict,’” said Jamali.

No one knew, until one day a fight with her husband led her to use off the clock at her workplace.

“I left, and I went straight to the hospital where I worked in my civilian clothes. I went into the recovery room, said ‘Hi’ to the nurses, went straight to the narcotic machine, put my fingerprint on it, checked out some medication, and went into the bathroom and injected,” Jamali said. “I woke up on the floor of that bathroom with the needle still in my arm, having vomited and urinated on myself.”

The hospital took her badge, opened an investigation, and reported her directly to the Medical Board of California. Then, Jamali revealed the truth to her husband.

“I just rolled up my arm and showed him these track marks that I had, and I thought here it comes! Instead, he picked me up in his arms and said, ‘Sweetheart, we will get you help,'” Jamali said. “I think that’s the first time, I realized no matter how hard anything gets, the truth is what gets you through the other side of the pain,” she said.

From there, Jamali started treatment on her own, recovered, and switched to a different medical field. Now, she speaks about her journey to other doctors struggling with addiction.

Jamali says the stress she faced back then is nothing compared to what healthcare workers are facing now during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, “it is estimated that approximately 10% to 15% of all healthcare professionals will misuse drugs or alcohol at some time during their career.”

Dr. Michael McCormick, an addiction specialist, says the pandemic has caused that number to increase. He’s the medical director of the Healthcare Professional Unit at Caron Treatment Center, where he treats medical professionals struggling with addiction. 

We really began to see it probably in April or May, and it’s continued since then and it’s actually recently been much worse over the last 3 months. So, it affects them in a number of ways. One is of course increase substance use whether it’s alcohol or drugs, but it’s also affecting them from anxiety, a depression standpoint,” McCormick said.

In most states, medical professionals caught abusing drugs or those who come forward are immediately referred to a Physicians Health Program or PHP.

“So they want physicians to come into this program, go get the help that they need; which is typically an inpatient facility like ours. You then sign a contract which on average is five years and that encompasses monitoring, small groups, large groups, psychiatrist, whether they have co-current disorders, monitors, a worksite monitor, a PHP monitor so there is a lot of eyes watching physicians when they return back to work,” McCormick explained.

But in California, medical workers are referred directly to the medical board and suspended until their case is reviewed. It’s a process that can take 2 years.

“If a physician knows that he or she needs help and they are afraid to go and ask for help because they are afraid they are going to lose their license or be in some bureaucratic; two-year period where they’re not able to work, and it kills their career. They are not going to ask for help,” said McCormick.

McCormick says getting help for anyone can be the difference between life and death. 

Here is a first step for medical workers struggling with addiction: the American Medical Association created chat rooms where physicians can discuss the emotional impact of their work. The American College of Physicians also provides resources.

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