Drunk or stoned medical providers can do more harm than good

When doctors or nurses go on the job while drunk or on drugs, they may cause serious or fatal injuries to patients in their care.

Performing any action under the influence of alcohol or drugs can have negative consequences. For example, if you climb behind the wheel while drunk, you can cause a crash that injures or kills someone. Should a police officer catch you, you could face civil and criminal penalties like fines, court costs, a suspended license, jail time and higher insurance rates.

Though all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and other U.S. territories outlaw operating a vehicle while intoxicated, very few states have laws or regulations prohibiting medical care providers-who hold the very lives of patients in their hands-from working while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. There may be regulatory or administrative consequences, but those are relatively rare. A recent expose by USA Today revealed that the issue of medical provider substance abuse is more common and pervasive than most people realize.

The surprising statistics

Data revealed by USA Today's Peter Eisler (gathered by the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) suggests that, conservatively, more than 100,000 doctors, nurses, technicians and care providers around the country are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Other studies estimate that number to be much higher, estimating that one out of every 10 medical professionals (approximately 360,000 people) struggles with substance abuse.

Think about that for a moment: the doctor operating on you might be taking breaks during procedures to use drugs in the restroom. The nurse monitoring your necessary pain medication could be siphoning some of it off for personal use. The anesthesiologist-responsible for maintaining the delicate balance of medications designed to keep you asleep enough to not feel the pain of surgery but not so much that it affects your body's crucial cardiac and pulmonary functions-could be snorting cocaine while on the clock.

An example given in Eisler's expose was a nurse who was so addicted to opiate pain medications that she placed an intravenous port in her ankle for easier access; her addiction continued unchecked for months, all while she was seeing patients and working as usual.

Real-world implications

Even cursory information learned in school health classes will tell you that alcohol and drugs have a direct impact on a person's reaction times, physical coordination, mental acuity and decision-making ability. Now consider that medical professionals are tasked with caring for ill patients, many of whom have life-threatening conditions.

When a doctor, nurse, pharmacist, technician or other member of a patient's care team is drunk or on drugs, medical mistakes are easily made. A patient could be given the wrong dose of a prescribed medication or the wrong medicine altogether. Patients who need pain medication for palliative care could be receiving only partial doses because a drug-addicted provider is "diverting" prescribed medications to feed an addiction. Addicted specialists responsible for reading key test results could miss indicators of acute conditions like heart attacks or strokes, or could misdiagnose chronic illnesses like cancer as something more mundane, putting off treatment that could literally save a patient's life.

Regardless of the reason why a nurse, doctor or other medical professional is abusing drugs or alcohol, the fact remains that the practice puts patients at serious risk of injury. If you or a loved one has been harmed by a medical provider who was drunk or stoned at the time of treatment-or you were subject to any other type of medical negligence-contact a medical malpractice attorney in your area to find out more about holding that provider accountable for the harm he or she caused.

Keywords: medical malpractice, medical negligence, medical mistakes, misdiagnosis