"We fired a girl at work today," my sister told me during one of our recent telephone conversations.
"She was stealing drugs. Our medical director caught her on a surveillance video. Crazy, right? I thought she looked high at a staff meeting not too long ago, and I think others noticed, too, so I'm sure they were suspicious of her anyway."
My sister works for a veterinary practice.
A recent Trends magazine series examined the scope of addiction within the veterinary world, and the problem is widespread.
"I've become increasingly aware of and very concerned about the risk of addiction and diversion of controlled substances in the veterinary profession. I think we as a profession need to do much more to educate our colleagues and our team members about those risks in order to create safe and healthy work environments," says Heidi L. Shafford, DVM, PhD, DACVA, owner of Veterinary Anesthesia Specialists, LLC.
"We have ready access to medications that are potentially addicting. We work in very stressful environments. And many, many people are involved in administering these medications to patients, so there are many opportunities for these medications to get diverted."
How do you, as a practice owner or manager, address the issue of substance abuse with your team? According to Trends, begin by creating a safe space to talk about a condition that still has a powerful stigma attached to it.
"Substance abuse is probably the number one or number two preventable health care problem in the United States, but substance-abuse disorders are still considered moral issues. 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps' and that kind of thing," says Elizabeth Pace, MSM, RN, CEAP, CEO of Peer Assistance Services, Inc. "All professionals--it doesn't matter who they are--tend to think, erroneously of course, that they know better, that they can manage better on their own. There's a sense that we understand drugs and can take care of our own problem. Talk about pharmacologic optimism. Substance-abuse disorder is a chronic, progressive, and life-threatening illness. It's a brain disease. It's altered neurochemistry.
"Stigma around addiction is alive and well. It's so discouraging to me. We have so much science around addiction, but there hasn't been a parallel path with attitudes," Pace says. "Ninety-nine percent of us know someone with a substance abuse problem. Maybe that person isn't an addict, but he or she abuses alcohol or abuses prescription medication. Maybe that person is a binge drinker who comes to work hung over. Most of the time, that individual is an excellent professional. Addiction is not about incompetence, but that doesn't mean he or she won't become incompetent and make errors when very sick."
"Addiction is usually a taboo subject. Bad people abuse drugs, and so on," Shafford says. "But it is an illness, and I think we, as a profession, need to embrace this as a health concern."
AAHA recently conducted an exclusive survey surrounding the subject of addiction and the results, shown in the below infographic, were eye-opening. More than half--56%--of AAHA members surveyed say they have worked with a veterinary professional who had a substance abuse problem. Of those who had worked with an addicted individual, 66% said the person used drugs or alcohol at work. In most cases (51%), the individual was fired.
Many respondents to the survey said that stress, depression, and easy access to drugs add up to a recipe for increased risk of substance abuse. Compassion fatigue can also increase the likelihood for a veterinarian or technician to turn to drugs or alcohol.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever worked with someone who abused substances? Is enough being done to combat this issue in the veterinary profession?
Check out the full stories on addiction in the April and May 2013 issues of Trends magazine.