Letter: Doctors on drugs

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Sir: Ian Burrell is to be congratulated on his coverage of the problem of addiction and dependence on alcohol and other drugs among doctors and others treating patients ("Doctors turn to drugs to ease pressures", 23 December). However, I would like to clarify one point.

He states that estimates submitted to the British Medical Association suggest that up to 14,000 doctors (more than 13 per cent of the medical workforce) have alcohol or drug addiction problems. The actual estimate is considerably less than 10 per cent and is based on "some degree of dependence" which is not synonymous with addiction. A doctor may drink one or two glasses of wine each evening, and be dependent on doing so, but it is not necessarily a problem and he may stop without difficulty.

The nature of addiction, commonly associated with lack of insight, denial and secrecy, means that estimates of the size of the problem are totally unreliable. Our concerns focus not on the number of doctors affected by the misuse of alcohol and other drugs but on ensuring that patients are not put at risk and that affected doctors have access to treatment as early as possible.

BILL O'NEILL

Scientific Adviser

British Medical Association

London WC1

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