Epidemic of Alcohol Abuse Among Surgeons

A new study indicates that chronic alcohol abuse among surgeons is far more common than among the general population.




In a previous column (Surgeon Performance and Alcohol), I reviewed a clinical research study that revealed just how significantly alcohol intake degrades surgical skills among surgeons, even well into the day following alcohol intake.  In another recent column, I examined a study that revealed a disturbingly high rate of burnout and depression among American surgeons (Surgeon Burnout and Depression).  This week, I will present a newly published clinical study that, once again, raises serious concerns about the health and wellbeing of many surgeons in the United States.

In a study that appears in the current issue of the Archives of Surgery, more than 7,000 surgeons in the United States agreed to participate in a confidential assessment of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence among members of the American College of Surgeons.  Validated surveys and tests were administered to these surgeon-volunteers, and the resulting data was analyzed.

Based upon the results of the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, 15 percent of the responding surgeons, overall, were identified as meeting the criteria for either chronic alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence.  Further evaluation of the data collected in this study revealed that 14 percent of the participating male surgeons met the criteria for chronic abuse of alcohol or alcohol dependency, while 26 percent of the corresponding female surgeons met these same worrisome criteria.  Moreover, surgeons who reported having committed a major medical or surgical error within the previous 3 months were 45 percent more likely to abuse alcohol, or to be dependent upon alcohol, when compared to surgeons who did not report any recent errors.  Similarly, surgeons who reported feeling burned out in their professional lives were 25 percent more likely to be problem drinkers when compared to surgeons who did not report professional burnout.  Finally, surgeons who reported symptoms consistent with depression were nearly 50 percent more likely to abuse alcohol than surgeons who did not report feeling depressed.

Interestingly, surgeons were less likely to have alcohol abuse and dependency problems if they were older, male, or had children.  (Approximately 11 percent of adult males in the general population are thought to have chronic alcohol abuse problems, while only about 5 percent of adult females in the general population appear to abuse alcohol on a regular basis.)

The findings of this study, once again, indicate a disturbingly high rate of substance abuse among American surgeons; and this is the first study to show that female surgeons, unlike women in the general population, are twice as likely as their male counterparts to regularly abuse alcohol.  Taken together with previous studies showing very high rates of depression and career burnout among surgeons in the United States, the findings of this latest study are rather worrisome.  (Previous studies have also linked an increased likelihood of medical and surgical errors to surgeons who are depressed, and who abuse alcohol and other drugs.)

I should also note that only 29 percent of the surgeons who were contacted agreed to participate in this confidential study.  Because this participation rate is much lower than what is typically seen in most survey-based research studies, it raises the important question as to whether or not the rate of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency might actually be considerably higher among surgeons, in general, than what is reflected in this study.  Indeed, most statistics experts believe that a very common reason for nonparticipation in survey-based studies is a reluctance to divulge negative information about oneself.  Moreover, even people who elect to participate in survey-based studies often “fudge” their responses in ways that tend to underestimate their bad habits and other self-perceived shortcomings.  Therefore, it is entirely possible that the incidence of chronic alcohol abuse and alcohol dependency among surgeons may be even higher than what was reported in this study….


As I have observed in previous columns, surgeons who abuse alcohol, or other drugs, are more likely to be associated with medical errors and worse patient outcomes.  However, the stigma of reporting oneself as having an alcohol, or other drug, problem is so great in the medical profession that impaired surgeons (as with other physicians) are generally extremely reluctant to admit that they have an alcohol or drug problem.  Most medical boards still require physicians to indicate whether or not they have a history of drug or alcohol abuse on licensure applications, and the medical profession, in general, still seems to be in a state of denial regarding the unusually high incidence of drug and alcohol abuse among physicians when compared to the general public.  It also goes without saying that the potential consequences of being operated upon by an impaired surgeon can be catastrophic to both patients and their loved ones, and, therefore, the still prevailing “head in the sand” approach to identifying, and rehabilitating, impaired physicians would not appear to serve the public interest very well, in my view.


While the vast majority of surgeons are passionately devoted to providing the best possible care to their patients, and would therefore not engage in personal behaviors that might potentially endanger their patients, it is becoming increasingly clear that a sizable percentage of surgeons in the United States are seriously impaired by burnout, depression and other mental health illnesses, and by alcohol and drug abuse.  Therefore, a better system of screening out surgical trainees who are predisposed to these serious health problems should be considered, while, at the same time, medical authorities at the state and federal levels should make it easier, and less threatening, for currently impaired physicians and surgeons to reach out for help without fearing that they will be punished or professionally sanctioned as a result.  I, therefore, applaud the American College of Surgeons for sponsoring and publishing this important study as a preliminary step forward in this direction.


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Disclaimer:  As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physician before making any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity

Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author

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