Substance Abuse in Medical Residents

21 million Americans suffer from addiction of some sort. Residents face a unique barrage of pressures: a high-stress work environment, financial pressure, intense competition from peers, and a still-unestablished sense of job security. So no, residents are not immune from substance abuse issues.

Studies show a relatively low rate of substance abuse among medical residents. This is somewhat beside the point, though. A single resident's—or physician's—substance abuse issue can cause great harm to themselves and patients. Furthermore, we've evolved to treat substance abuse as a disorder that requires empathetic treatment, not crude punishment.

If you're facing a substance abuse issue during your residency, an attorney-advisor can help. Your residency programs' initial response may be to fire you, or at least consider firing you. The Lento Law Firm will advocate for a more compassionate response.

Why Medical Residents May Face a High Risk of Substance Use or Abuse

The Society for Academic Emergency Medicine (p.893) identifies substance use by medical professionals as a threat to patient safety. It is also a source of liability for individual residents and residency programs, contributing to medical errors and the “breakdown of personal and family life for the affected physician.”

Factors that may contribute to substance issues in medical residents include:

  • Long hours
  • The stress of learning new training
  • Unnatural sleep patterns
  • The difficulty of balancing personal responsibilities and one's duties as a resident
  • A preexisting history of substance abuse
  • Pressure to compete for a strong job post-residency, which may lead a resident to seek an advantage through substances
  • Residency-related isolation
  • Increase exposure and access to medications

The reason for a resident's substance abuse matters but is not as important as finding a solution to the problem. Whether the solution lies in treatment, counseling, or elsewhere, we'll seek a resolution that will allow you to consider residency—once you're prepared to do so.

Types of Substance Abuse Issues that Medical Residents Struggle With

By the letter of its rules, your residency program may consider the use of illicit drugs to be substance abuse. It may also view excessive, unsafe, or inappropriate use of prescribed or legal substances as a form of abuse. Substances-related circumstances that may lead to punitive measures include:

  • Testing positive for any drug prohibited by federal or state law
  • Using alcohol before or during your shift
  • Using prescribed medications in a manner that interferes with your effectiveness as a resident
  • Stealing medication from a medical facility for personal use

Your residency program's policies may identify specific substances that residents are prohibited from using.

Not All Substance Use by Medical Residents Is Deserving of Discipline

About two-thirds of all Americans take prescription medication of some sort. Being a medical resident doesn't mean ceasing the use of all medications. However, residents must be reasonably forthcoming about their medication use if they want to avoid potential sanctions.

You may take medication to help you sleep, for anxiety or depression, or for other reasons. Without context, your residency program may flag you for substance abuse. It may even proceed with discipline despite you providing an explanation.

How Residency Programs Handle Substance Abuse Issues

Residency programs may vary in their approach to substance abuse issues. In general, residents may be afforded the opportunity to seek help before a residency program takes punitive measures.

The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) states that “Residents will be strongly encouraged to seek help or assistance for any problems with

alcohol, drugs or mental illness that affect their ability to function as a resident.” It also notes that a resident can generally seek help “without jeopardizing the residents' rights to confidentiality and the continuation of his/her residency training.”

MUSC handles substance abuse cases by:

  1. Notifying the program director, program coordinator, or department chair of any “red flags” that may indicate substance abuse
  2. Contacting the resident, ordering a meeting to address the potential of substance abuse
  3. If the resident admits to the substance abuse issue: Testing the resident for impairment, enacting a leave of absence, and helping them receive appropriate treatment
  4. If the resident denies a substance abuse issue: Removing the resident from the clinical area, requesting that they undergo testing, and suspending the resident if they refuse to undergo testing for impairment.

High-ranking faculty at MUSC will decide if and when a resident can be reinstated. The resident may need to comply with specific terms, like completing treatment, before they're reinstated.

Your residency program may have a similar view of, and protocol for, substance abuse issues. Some residency programs, though, may not show compassion or leniency. Prepare for the possibility that your residency program may reprimand, suspend, or fire you because of a substance-related issue.

The Importance of a Strong Defense to Alleged Substance Abuse

Substance abuse issues are something of a wild card when it comes to possible discipline. When a resident commits blatant misconduct—fabricating medical data, for example—one may predict that a residency program will take punitive measures. Our society views substance abuse as less of a black-and-white issue, though.

It's generally safe to assume that your residency program will take a punitive approach to your substance abuse issue. Whether you've been falsely accused or you've truly struggled with one or more substances, you want to maintain your residency. An attorney-advisor will fight for an outcome that preserves your goals in medicine.

Hire a Qualified Attorney-Advisor for a Medical Residency Substance Abuse Issue

Medical programs tend to take immediate action on issues of substance abuse. You should hire an attorney-advisor as soon as you can. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team will immediately begin your defense. They're prepared to:

  • Speak with you about your case
  • Gather any evidence that is necessary to your defense
  • Contact appropriate administrators at your residency program
  • Determine the target outcome for your case
  • Determine what protocols lie ahead
  • Accompany you to all case-related meetings and hearings

Our team will help you evaluate the right decision for you and seek leniency from your medical program. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 to learn more about how we can help. You may also submit your case details online.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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