The British Medical Association yesterday appealed to doctors who were experiencing problems with alcohol and drugs to seek treatment without fear of reprimand.
Some general practitioners have a penchant for diamorphine, as they like to call their heroin. Dentists can have a weakness for nitrous oxide, the laughing gas used to knock out patients before especially painful treatment. For pharmacists, the drug of choice tends to be codeine, a hypnotic opiate that they are not required to account for. Nurses are prone to secreting supplies of benzodiazepines - tranquillisers.
The unique position of health professionals in having easy access to drugs puts them at high risk of developing a dependency which can wreck their careers and families. The problem has now been recognised to the extent that a rehabilitation centre to deal exclusively with health professionals suffering from substance abuse, the Foxleigh Grove Chemical Dependency Centre, has been set up near Maidenhead in Berkshire.
Earlier this year the BMA, along the with the General Medical Council and the royal colleges, set up a working party on the misuse of alcohol and other drugs. Next month it will issue its first report, with recommendations on how the health professions should deal with addiction within their own ranks.
Dr Bill O'Neill, science and ethics adviser to the BMA, said: "We want to encourage people to come forward and acknowledge that they have a problem and ask for help without their career being destroyed. Our ultimate concern is for the welfare of patients but the starting point has got to be to identify doctors who may have a problem before any harm is done."
Last year Clive Froggatt, 48, a family doctor who was a confidant of four successive health secretaries, admitted that he had a heroin addiction and offences for possession of the drug. A former Tory councillor who was brought in to advise on health reforms after meeting the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, he was dismissed from the medical register in March 1996 after being given a 12-month suspended sentence.
Some estimates submitted to the BMA have suggested that up to 14,000 doctors have alcohol or drug addiction problems, although accurate assessment of the scale of the problem is extremely difficult.
Several dentists have become addicted to the anaesthetic nitrous oxide, a fast- acting psychedelic drug which leaves no tell-tale smells but can have long-term neurophysiological effects. There is also concern over the use of cannabis by medical students because the drug is believed to inhibit fine movement, which is especially crucial in dentistry.
Among the population at large, between 10 and 15 per cent are thought to have the type of personality which puts them at risk of addiction. Many doctors say they start taking drugs for experimental reasons, driven by professional curiosity.
Medical colleges are seen as breeding grounds for later alcoholism and deans are being encouraged to make greater efforts to include warnings on the potential dangers of psychoactive substances in the curriculum.
Health professional seeking help for an addiction problem can call Sick Doctors Trust 01252 345163; Pharmacists Helpline 01628 770243; Dentists Helpline 01628 770242; Anaesthetists Helpline 0171-631 1650.Reuse content