Nurses Speak About Risk For Opioid Addiction

By Kelly Burch 02/27/19

One nurse in recovery says that easy access to medications heightens the risk of addiction among people in her occupation.

a group of nurses speaking out opioid addiction risks

With long hours, stressful shifts and easy access to prescription medications, nurses are at high risk of opioid addiction, according to people who work in the industry. 

According to a recent report by Fox13 Memphis, 114 nurses lost their licenses (or had them suspended) because of addiction issues over the course of one year in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. 

“I would say 20 to 25 percent of nurses probably have an addiction problem,” said Deena Coleman, a nurse who has been in recovery for 10 years, and now helps other nurses connect with treatment. “I don’t know, 20 to 25 percent are seeking treatment. But it would be my guess.”

Coleman said that with medications everywhere, it’s simple for nurses to cross the line. 

“We are very bright people. We can figure out how to get what we want. And I think nurses see things lying around. They see how things go,” she said. “And it takes them a very short time to say, ‘Okay, that would be easy to pick up and put in my pocket.’”

One nurse who spoke with Fox using the pseudonym "Sophie" said that a doctor she worked with got her started using opioids recreationally. Soon she was using them to get through her shifts. 

“Eventually I took narcotics from work and was caught. And was charged with obtaining narcotic by fraud,” she said. 

She said that she knows her drug abuse affected the patients that she was caring for. “I would be foolish to say no it didn’t. Yes, it did. It had to have. There was no way that I could use opioids,” she said.

In Mississippi, nurses need to document a year of sobriety—proven by drug tests—in order to be able to regain their license. 

“They make it difficult for you to get your license back. Yes, it is fair. You are taking care of people,” said Sophie. Now six years sober, she is hoping to return to nursing. “There is absolutely hope,” she said. 

In Massachusetts, the Board of Registration in Nursing runs a Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program for nurses who are coping with addiction. Nurses who complete the program can keep their licenses after they complete the course. 

David Kelly, a former registered nurse who became addicted to opioids said that he was lucky to be in a state with such a program. However, he said that opioid addiction needs to be talked about more openly among healthcare professionals. 

“We have great recovery programs in this state, but our outreach needs to improve,” he said during a talk at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in 2017.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.