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Substance Abuse Rises Among Medical Trainees

A new report shows that the number of anesthesiology residents struggling with substance abuse is at its highest levels since 1975.


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Photo via Shutterstock

By Shawn Dwyer


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Headed by David O. Warner, MD of the Mayo Clinic and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a study examining the disciplinary records of 44,612 residents between 1975 and 2009 showed that substance abuse is on the rise among anesthesiology residents.

The study revealed that a total of 384 trainees were disciplined for substance abuse during that time period. Since 2003, however, the rates of substance abuse among residents has more than doubled. By far, the greatest number of abusers had problems with IV opioids such as fentanyl, followed by alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. But while rates of abuse drastically increased, the rate of relapse remained unchanged. "To our knowledge, this report provides the first comprehensive description of the epidemiology and outcomes of substance use disorder for any in-training physician specialty group, showing that the incidence of substance use disorder has increased over the study period and that relapse rates are not improving," the study said.

Digging deeper into the data, the report showed that a total of 28 residents died while in training and in each case the cause of death was attributed to substance abuse. Other conclusions drawn from the study showed that far more men than women had problems with abuse, while 69 percent of those whose specific drug of choice was indicated in their records went on to finish their training. Fifty one percent received their board certification in anesthesiology. "Although relatively few anesthesiology residents develop substance abuse disorder, the incidence is continuing to increase," Warner said. "The problem is as serious now as it has been at any time over the period of study, and the consequences can be severe.”

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