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.


 

 

EPIDEMIC OF ALCOHOL ABUSE AMONG SURGEONS

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.


 

For a groundbreaking overview of cancer risks, and evidence-based strategies to reduce your risk of developing cancer, order your copy of my bestselling book, “A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race,” from AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks-A-MillionVroman’s Bookstore, and other fine bookstores!

Within one week of publication, A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race was ranked #6 among all cancer-related books on the Amazon.com “Top 100 Bestseller’s List” for Kindle e-books. Within three months of publication, A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race was the #1 book on the Amazon.comTop 100 New Book Releases in Cancer” list.


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


For a lighthearted perspective on Dr. Wascher, please click on the following YouTube link:

Texas Blues Jam


I and the staff of Weekly Health Update would again like to take this opportunity to thank the more than 100,000 health-conscious people from around the world who visit this premier global health information website every month.  (More than 1.3 million pages of high-quality medical research findings were served to the worldwide audience of health-conscious people who visited Weekly Health Update in 2011!)  As always, we enjoy receiving your stimulating feedback and questions, and I will continue to try and personally answer as many of your inquiries as I possibly can.


 








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Surgeon Performance Impaired After Drinking Alcohol the Day Before Surgery

Welcome to Weekly Health Update


“A critical weekly review of important new research findings for health-conscious readers”



 

SURGEON PERFORMANCE IMPAIRED AFTER DRINKING ALCOHOL THE DAY BEFORE SURGERY

Surgeons, like pilots, are held to a very high standard of conduct when it comes to alcohol and drug use. Unlike pilots, however, there are no rules barring surgeons from having a few beers, or other alcoholic drinks, on the day or evening before they enter the operating room to perform surgery.

While most surgeons drink alcohol responsibly, some surgeons (like people in any other profession) may occasionally have a few more drinks the day or evening before they report for duty than might be considered prudent. When a surgeon has a few more alcoholic drinks than they might have planned on the day before they are scheduled to perform surgery, most will undoubtedly assume that “sleeping it off” overnight will leave them fresh and in tip-top shape to wield the scalpel in the operating room on the next morning. However, a newly published clinical research study suggests otherwise….

A newly published prospective, randomized clinical study, which appears in the latest issue of the Archives of Surgery, included two groups of study volunteers. A total of 8 expert laparoscopic surgeons were included in one group, while the other group consisted of 16 university science students. All 24 participants were trained to use a computer-based laparoscopic surgery training device that is routinely utilized to train new surgeons in laparoscopic surgery skills. The science students were then divided into two groups. The “control” group abstained from alcohol for the 24-hour period prior to being tested on their laparoscopic skills, while the other half of the students (the “experimental group”) were allowed to drink alcohol freely until they felt themselves to be “intoxicated.” The 8 expert laparoscopic surgeons were all permitted to drink alcoholic beverages “until intoxicated.” The following day, all 24 study volunteers were tested on the laparoscopic training device at 9:00 AM, 1:00 PM, and 4:00 PM. All study participants also underwent breathalyzer testing to measure their blood alcohol level, and only one of the volunteers had a blood alcohol level above the legal limit (for driving) of 0.1 percent at 9:00 on the morning after their drinking binge.

Among the science students, performance deteriorated in all of the tested laparoscopic surgery skills among those who had consumed alcohol on the day prior to testing (when compared to the “control group” of students). The outcome was not any better for the expert laparoscopic surgeons, either. These experienced surgeons, all of whom consumed multiple alcoholic drinks on the day before testing, showed significant deterioration in the time that it took them to perform specific laparoscopic surgery skills, as well as a significant deterioration in their coordination and in the number of technical errors that they made. Moreover, this significant deterioration in surgical performance was still detectable at 4:00 PM on the day after these study volunteers had consumed multiple alcoholic beverages, and despite blood alcohol levels well below the legal limit for driving.

As previous research with airline pilots has shown, alcohol consumption within 24 hours of performing critical tasks can cause significant cognitive and physical impairment, even when blood alcohol levels are zero, or near zero. The findings of this clinical study of surgeons came to similar conclusions, and these findings suggest that surgeons should avoid the consumption of multiple alcoholic drinks within 24 hours of entering the operating room.

For a complete evidence-based discussion about how to live an evidence-based cancer prevention lifestyle, order your copy of my new book, A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race For the price of a cheeseburger, fries, and a shake, you can purchase this landmark new book, in both paperback and e-book formats, and begin living an evidence-based cancer prevention lifestyle today!

For a groundbreaking overview of cancer risks, and evidence-based strategies to reduce your risk of developing cancer, order your copy of my new book, A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race,” from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Vroman’s Bookstore, and other fine bookstores!

On Thanksgiving Day, 2010, A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race was ranked #6 among all cancer-related books on the Amazon.com “Top 100 Bestseller’s List” for Kindle e-books! On Christmas Day, 2010, A Cancer Prevention Guide for the Human Race was the #1 book on the Amazon.comTop 100 New Book Releases in Cancer” list!


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



For a different perspective on Dr. Wascher, please click on the following YouTube link:

Texas Blues Jam



I and the staff of Weekly Health Update would again like to take this opportunity to thank the more than 100,000 health-conscious people, from around the world, who visit this premier global health information website every month. (More than 1.2 million health-conscious people visited Weekly Health Update in 2010!) As always, we enjoy receiving your stimulating feedback and questions, and I will continue to try and personally answer as many of your inquiries as I possibly can.





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