Overdose-related Deaths Common Among Healthcare Professionals

From 2003 to 2013, an average of 37 healthcare professionals died from drug-related causes in Australia.

A recent study found a significant link between certain healthcare professionals and drug-induced deaths in Australia.

Drug overdose-related deaths have been increasing in the United States, with many dying each day from prescription opioids and illicit drugs. Aiming to address this problem, many states have created initiatives to prevent these deaths and the financial burden it places on the healthcare industry.

New research from Australia suggests that drug-related deaths many not be a problem that is localized to the United States, and could potentially be a global epidemic.

From 2003 to 2013, five of every 1000 deaths of healthcare professionals were caused by drugs, and researchers even discovered a link between specific professions and drug types, according to the study published by Addiction.

Healthcare professionals who died from a drug overdose were more likely to be females in their mid-40s, having a mental health conditions, being under stress, and exhibiting self-harming habits.

Investigators examined drug use and mental health conditions among physicians, nurses, dentists, psychologists, psychiatrists, physiotherapists, pharmacists, paramedics, and veterinarians. Included in the study were 404 deaths, an average of 37 per year, among this population over the 10-year period.

The researchers discovered that certain professions were linked to higher rates of death caused by drugs.

“The mortality rate was highest in veterinarians, of which most involved death by suicide using potent barbiturates usually used in animal euthanasia,” said researcher Jennifer Pilgrim, PhD. “Our research also observed some different trends to existing literature on occupation-specific drug choice. For example, nurses, dentists and pharmacists reportedly gravitate towards misuse of opioids however in this study, these health care professionals misused opioids along with other substances, namely benzodiazepines.”

Diagnosis of a mental health condition and previous self-harm were reported in nearly half of the patients included, and 50% of deaths were ruled to be intentional, according to the study.

Both illicit and legal psychoactive drugs are reported to have higher rates of misuse among healthcare professionals compared with the general population, which is supported by these recent findings.

Investigators also found that 62% of the deaths were amongst nurses employed in various parts of the healthcare system, according to the study.

Certain factors make these individuals more vulnerable to developing a substance use disorder. Healthcare professionals typically have high-stress careers, easy access to drugs, work long hours, and are in contact with terminally ill patients.

Having easy access to prescription drugs can provide a simple route for healthcare professionals with a substance use disorder to either self-prescribe, steal, or illegally obtain the drugs.

The findings suggest that additional steps should be taken to monitor these individuals for both mental health conditions and substance use disorders, since healthcare professionals may not seek help due to stigma and fear they will lose their jobs, according to the study.

“By analyzing deaths reported to the coroner, the study provides new data of confirmed drug misuse in healthcare professionals and avoids the limitations of studies that rely on self-reports of drug use,” Dr Pilgrim concluded. “We hope that our research can help inform best approaches to healthcare professionals' drug use and mental health care needs.”