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5% of doctors are alcohol dependent, research says

UK doctors are turning to alcohol, food, and drugs to cope with the pressures of their working environment, a new study has shown. 

Researchers from University College London (UCL) and Birkbeck, University of London, found that over one in four doctors binge-drink and 5% meet the criteria for alcohol dependence.

The study asked 417 doctors across the UK about their occupational distress and showed that job factors such as work-life imbalance and burnout increased the likelihood of substance misuse, insomnia, and binge-eating.

This comes after a Pulse survey of over 800 GPs revealed one in seven turn to alcohol and drugs to cope with the stress of general practice.

The research also suggested community-based doctors are ‘more at risk’ of feeling worse after binge-eating.

This study showed over half of participants (53%) drank alcohol more than twice a week and 44% binge-drank, which was defined as consuming six or more drinks on one occasion.

With regards to substances, 44% of doctors used drugs, but the study stated ‘almost all were non-illicit drugs’. Over-the-counter medications were most commonly used (35%), and prescription drug use was rare; 3% used opioids and 2% used benzodiazepines.

Given that almost a fifth of respondents (18%) were GPs and the average age of participants was 47, the research suggested that community-based doctors are ‘more at risk’ of feeling worse after binge-eating but that doctors who’ve been in the profession longer were ‘less likely to have unpleasant emotions after binge-eating.

It stated: ‘Doctors who have longer experience working in medicine, and doctors who work in hospitals, are less likely to have unpleasant emotions after binge-eating, suggesting that community-based doctors are more at risk of finding that binge-eating makes them feel worse, rather than better.’

Dr Clare Gerada, medical director at Practitioner Health Programme, said: ‘The prevalence of dependence in the general population is nearer 12%, so its actually showing what we felt for a long time, which is doctors have a far lower rate of alcohol dependence. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a problem. It’s not minimizing the problem, its actually putting it into context.

‘It’s a stressful job being a doctor, they tend to come in young, and young people tend to binge drink. This is what we find in our service. Doctors don’t tend to have a typical alcohol dependence, but they tend to binge-drink when they’re off duty to overcome the stress of a really difficult job.’

Dr. Asta Medisauskaite, lead author on the research, said: ‘We found evidence that stress damages the health of doctors. We know from previous literature that doctors under stress are at risk of poor quality patient care. Our study provides the missing link for evidence that stress actually has severe health consequences for doctors, including regular alcohol use and binge-drinking.

‘In terms of GPs, our study actually showed that hospital-based doctors have nearly twice the risk of drinking a large amount of alcohol on a typical day of drinking, and binge-drinking, compared to community-based doctors like GPs. Hospital doctors are also twice more likely to have sleep problems.

‘Our research did show that community-based doctors like GPs are at higher risk of binge-eating, which is something that should be explored in further research.’

Pulse’s recent workload survey revealed GPs are working beyond safe measures when it comes to patient safety.

It also showed how GP partners work the longest hours and have more patient contacts than other GPs.