Alcohol Abuse Among Physicians: Taking Control

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Alcohol Abuse Among Physicians: Taking Control

Physicians, like many adults in the general public, enjoy drinking an alcoholic beverage in a socially appropriate context when they are not taking call. But what happens when casual drinking becomes a problem? Nine out of 10 doctors recognize when they’ve reached their alcohol limit and stop drinking. However, an estimated 10% of doctors allow alcohol to adversely affect their overall well-being, health, and medical practices.

The American Medical Association Code of Ethic requires all doctors to promote personal health and wellness and to promptly inform relevant authorities of an impaired or incompetent colleague. Yet, one in three (36%) physicians surveyed in a recent national poll said they’ve had firsthand knowledge of a physician struggling with drug and/or alcohol misuse and yet did nothing.

Some of the reasons these surveyed doctors gave for ignoring harmful behaviors included: “someone else would take care of the problem,” “nothing would happen as a result of the report,” “fear of retribution,” and feelings of being ill-prepared to deal with an unstable colleague.

Additionally, the ever present stigma and shame associated with alcoholism and recovery can deter any physician—who may be struggling with unsafe alcohol consumption—from disclosing her/his compromised behaviors to a hospital’s wellness committee or colleague.

If you have enough courage to screen yourself or a colleague, the CAGE and AUDIT questionnaires may help identify a potential problem.

John Ewing, MD, the Director of the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, developed the brief, four-question survey in the CAGE questionnaire. To gather more sensitive alcohol screening information, the AUDIT tool, developed by the World Health Organization, is a 10 question multiple-choice test that recognizes a fuller spectrum of alcohol use.

If you are unsure or wondering whether you or someone else has a problem, visit for a statistically validated, step-by-step guide you can use to determine if you, a colleague, or a friend has a true drinking problem. It’s most important to remember physicians indeed do get better!


Robb Hicks, MD, is a Certified Physician Development Coach and the Founder and President of HEAL Your Career and Intentional Sobriety. To read the unabridged version of this article, including contact information for Dr. Hicks as well as additional guides and resources, visit us online.