Yea, We’re Doctors. But None of Us Are Immune to Drug Abuse

A few years ago, one of my classmates passed away, and suddenly, my news feed was flooded with mourning. People spoke of what a great person they were and their lovable personality. They reflected on their times playing sports together and the great memories they made at college parties. They spoke of how – at a young age – this person had a bright future that they unfortunately do not get to see.

What people didn’t speak of is that this person, though having recently gone to rehab, died of a heroin overdose.

Upon hearing this, I was flooded with questions. What if someone had done more to help them? What if they had made a more conscious decision to fight their addiction? Why did their abuse of drugs start? Why did their rehab not work? Why did their life have to end at such a young age? What if there was something I could have done when we were classmates to prevent their life from ending up this way?

Alas, these questions have no easy answers and in retrospect have no use for my classmate.

Recently, many of them came racing back to my mind upon hearing of the death of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. After more than two decades sobriety with a relapse and rehab last spring, he was found dead with a hypodermic needle in his arm and empty bags that once contained heroin nearby at the age of 46.



According to the CDC, each day in the US 105 people die from primarily accidental drug overdose and another 6,748 are treated in emergency departments for the misuse or abuse of drugs. These numbers have been steadily climbing since 1992. Of these overdoses, 40% are non-pharmaceuticals like heroin. Of the pharmaceutical-related trips to the ED, 1.4 million visits a year involve their use in a nonmedical fashion.

Drug abuse is not only puts our health at risk, but it’s costly. Opioid abuse itself cost Americans about $55.7 billion in 2007. Most of this is attributed to workplace costs such as lost productivity, healthcare costs, and criminal justice costs, not the drugs themselves.

As almost docs, we are not immune. A 2012 study reported that one in 10 physicians develop problems with alcohol or drugs at some point. In fact, they’re more likely than average to abuse prescription drugs, perhaps due to their ease of access.

And yet, there is a stigma about doctors that deters many from seeking help. “Doctors are taught to be decisive and they are treated with respect,” said Dr. Michael Wilks, a general practitioner and former addict, in a 2010 article. “So to ask for help, you have to climb off your pedestal and admit you have a problem. Doctors don’t want to reach out for that help – because they don’t understand that a real alcoholic cannot help themselves.”

While there are programs designed for doctors to deal with addictions such as Sick Doctors Trust in the UK and physician health programs in the US, participation still requires the person to be willing to overcome this stigma and admit they have a problem. Perhaps that is where others – friends, family, coworkers, and so forth – need to step in and help. If we as medical students and doctors cannot admit our problem, perhaps what we can do is at least look out for each other.

But again, there’s no easy answer.

If you abuse drugs or know someone who does, I beg of you to speak up. Addiction is expensive, dangerous, and can consume and cost lives. We spend so much time to achieve our dream of becoming doctors – don’t let drugs compromise years of hard work.


Featured image from Flickr |

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Hanna Erickson, "Almost" MD/PhD

Hanna is a MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois and an aspiring physician scientist who aims to specialize in hepatobiliary cancers. She is also passionate about teaching, leadership, and advocacy. The energy she once used to pep up crowds as a college marching band member is now directed toward exciting and educating others about science and medicine, especially through her tweets at @MDPhDToBe and her blog at