Surgeons More Likely To Abuse Alcohol, Study Finds

hospital patient consultation
May 23, 2017
|   Updated:
November 5, 2021

After years of careful study, they hold life and death in their hands every day; no one understands the miracle or the frailty of the human body as well as physicians. That should make it all the more shocking to learn that up to 15 percent of U.S. surgeons may have problems with alcohol abuse, according to a 2012 study published in the Archives of Surgery.

The study, which analyzed survey responses from over 7,000 surgeons, found that surgeons may have a rate of alcohol abuse that’s 67 percent higher than the rate typically found in studies of the general U.S. population.

Reasons Why Surgeon May Abuse Alcohol

It certainly makes sense. Surgeons have some of the most rewarding jobs on the planet. They enjoy financial security most people only dream of, and when things go well they’re hailed as miracle-workers and heroes. However, a bad day at work for a surgeon is substantially more emotionally taxing than a bad day for most other jobs.

Add to that the extra hours required when doctors are on-call, and the fact that so many of their daily tasks are connected to hectic, high-stakes emergency care, and it’s easy to see how so many could turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Results indicated a wide split between male and female rates of alcohol dependency and abuse: female surgeons were nearly twice as likely to score within the “problem” range. However, the study was unable to explain this gender gap.

The survey also looked at “major medical errors.” Overall rates were low: only 10 percent of surgeons reporting said they’d made such an error in the previous quarter. However, of those who had, nearly 80 percent also indicated off-the-job issues with alcohol abuse.

Michael Oreskovich of the University of Washington led the study. He actually believes the alcoholism rate among surgeons might actually be higher than the study indicates; human beings are notorious for under-reporting their own frailties on survey instruments, and a survey such as this one may have led surgeons who knew they had alcohol issues to avoid responding altogether, artificially deflating the alcoholism rate measured. Determining a more precise number would require more thorough studies.

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