Intoxication 'rife among doctors'
June 13, 2005
The British Medical Association has called for action over alcohol and drug abuse among medics after a BBC survey showed the problem was widespread.
BBC One's Real Story found over the last 10 years 750 hospital staff in England had been disciplined over alcohol and drug-related incidents.
The BMA estimates one in 15 doctors could be abusing drugs and alcohol.
BMA Ethics Committee chairman Michael Wilks said the profession was in denial and needed help to tackle the problem.
Doctors are known to be at least three times as likely to have cirrhosis of the liver - a sign of alcohol damage - than the rest of the population.
This is second only to publicans and bar staff.
Dr Wilks said: "You've got a profession that doesn't want to face up to the fact that it's got a problem in the ranks.
"You've got levels of denial that make it virtually impossible for an alcoholic doctor to be helped.
"With a fairly modest investment we could set up a programme that could intervene effectively, train people to buy the right treatment and set up a monitoring system," he said.
He estimates this would cost government £10million and would save money in the long run.
The BBC figures are based on replies from one in three hospital trusts in the UK and reflect only those cases that the employers knew about.
NHS Employers said the figures were probably an underestimate.
At Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, three consultants in three years had been referred to the General Medical Council for alcohol problems.
At East Kent NHS Trust, seven doctors and two nurses had been disciplined over drink and drugs in the last 10 years.
The biggest figure came from the University of Leicester NHS Trust where 17 clinical staff, including one consultant, four nurses and two operating theatre practitioners were disciplined over the past decade.
The British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons said a survey of 150 consultant surgeons revealed more than a fifth said they knew a colleague who they believed to be impaired by alcohol while on call.
Yet unlike other professions responsible for public safety, such as airline pilots and tube drivers, the NHS does not have strict rules on drinking before duty.
Newcastle Upon Tyne NHS Trust has guidance that staff should not drink up to eight hours before they are on duty. None of the others in the BBC survey had such rules.
Alistair Henderson, director of operations for NHS Employers, said even when policy was in place it did not always safeguard against the problem.
"Sometimes it is easy to assume that having a policy is the same as dealing with it.
"I would hope and expect that all organisations are able to deal effectively with drug and alcohol abuse."
He said random alcohol and drugs testing of staff, which has been suggested by some as a solution, would not solve the problem.
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's Head of Science and Ethics, said: "Doctors respond extremely well to treatment when they have the appropriate services available to them. Research has shown that the vast majority of doctors will make a full recovery."
She also called for more government investment for such services.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "We expect all NHS Trusts to have in place drug and alcohol misuse policies."
She added that all trusts were required to provide access to occupational health services for staff and that NHS Employers had made good progress to ensure staff were being provided with appropriate support.
Dr Thomas Kenny, a surgeon who is recovering from alcohol addiction, said: "Patients have suffered and it's something I have to put up with every day of my life."
Natasza Lambert from Folkestone told Real Story she had been seen by a doctor who was under the influence of alcohol.
"He had come in straight from riding. He was absolutely paralytic. He was all over the place, stuttering and slurring."