Stress driving doctors and dentists to drink addiction
Thousands of doctors and dentists are putting patients at risk because they are addicted to alcohol, an official report has revealed.
Many others are depressed to the point of considering suicide or are addicted to drugs, says a hard-hitting government review into the health of NHS staff.
It says medical professionals often fail to seek help because they fear they will be stigmatised or could lose their jobs. Others simply remain in denial.
The report lists overcrowding on hospital wards and stringent Whitehall targets among the factors putting too heavy a burden on staff. It quotes a U.S. study which indicates that doctors who are depressed are six times more likely to make errors over medication.
According to the report, as many as 15 per cent of dentists (one in seven) may have an alcohol problem, while some 7 per cent of doctors (one in 15) have been addicted to drink or drugs at some point in their career.
This works out at 5,000 dentists and 15,000 doctors who have - or have had - a problem.
A survey of hospital trusts found that a third of male junior house officers and almost one in five of their female peers said they used cannabis and 13 per cent said they used ecstasy, cocaine and other hallucinogenic drugs.
The report says the problems are likely to worsen because drug and alcohol dependency are becoming more common in the population as a whole. It warns: 'Evidence is also beginning to emerge of substance misuse problems among nurses and pharmacists.
The report adds: 'It may be easy to spot a health professional who is obviously under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but persistent and long-term substance misuse can be harder to pick up and the consequences for quality and safety of care harder to predict.
'Research shows that working while under the influence of drugs or alcohol increases the chances that healthcare workers will make mistakes and communicate poorly with colleagues and patients.'
The report, called Invisible Patients, was written by a Department of Health-appointed working group chaired by Professor Alastair Scotland, chief executive of the National Clinical Assessment Authority. They pointed to Whitehall-targets and overcrowded hospital wards as causing extra work and stress.
No ward is supposed to have more than 85 per cent of beds occupied at one time, to help fight infection, but on geriatric wards it can be as high as 92 per cent.
The report said: 'Workplace stresses highlighted in the staff and public perception survey carried out for this report included staff
shortages, funding cuts, an undue emphasis on budgets and targets and concerns about quality of care. Externally-imposed targets, change without consultation and pay issues also featured.
'The greater the degree of overcrowding, the greater was the likelihood of starting antidepressant treatment.'
The report says NHS staff have some of the highest rates of sickness absence among public sector employees, 10.7 days a year each. Sickness absence costs the NHS £1.7billion a year, most due to mental illnesses, including stress.
The group also found that too many doctors engaged in 'selfprescribing' - giving themselves drugs to treat illness rather than asking a GP as they are supposed to do.
Vivienne Nathanson, head of ethics at the British Medical Association, said the organisation had estimated a couple of years ago that 7 per cent of doctors had a lifetime risk of an alcohol problem.
She said: 'There are a huge number of stressors - both emotional and physical. That is why we have a 24-hour stress helpline and a service where a doctor can find a buddy who can help them get treatment.'
Peter Ward, chief executive of the British Dental Association, said: 'While alcohol dependency is not unique to health professionals, it is important that when it does surface it is dealt with promptly.'
The Department of Health said: 'We support local health services to develop and implement health programmes for NHS staff.'
The Daily Mail, 24 April 2010.
reporter Daniel Martin
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