More nurses die from deliberate drug overdose than any other health care professionals

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Study indicates high rate of ‘intentional’ drug-related deaths among nurses

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More nurses die from deliberate drug overdose than any other health care professionals, according to a landmark new study.

Key points:

  • Researchers examined more than 400 drug-related deaths
  • On average, 37 health care workers died each year from drug overdoses
  • Most drugs were obtained illegally through workplace by theft or self prescription

Researchers from the Department of Forensic Medicine at Monash University examined more than 400 drug-related deaths of Australian healthcare workers between 2003 and 2013.

It included medical practitioners, paramedics, nurses, dentists, psychologists, pharmacists and vets.

Lead author Jennifer Pilgrim found the highest number of deaths was amongst nurses — 62 per cent of the deaths — followed by medical practitioners, at 18 per cent.

Most of the nurses were women, and the doctors male.

“Drug-caused deaths amongst healthcare professionals in Australia commonly involve females in their mid-40s, with a diagnosis of mental illness, personal and professional stress and the intent to self-harm,” the study found.

Intentional self-harm was the main cause of death, and mental illness was common, with depression diagnosed in almost half of those who died.

But taking into account the number of people employed in different parts of the health sector, veterinarians were most at risk of a fatal overdose.

Do you know more about this story? Email investigations@abc.net.au

“Most of these vets involved intentional self-harm where they took an overdose of barbiturates,” she said.

“Until this study, we didn’t know if drug-related overdoses were a problem in Australia.

“Professional and personal stresses were also very common, along with financial problems, relationship problems and workplace stress.”

Drugs obtained illegally through workplace

On average, 37 health care workers died each year from drug overdoses.

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Most of the drugs were obtained illegally through the workplace by theft or self prescription.

Dr Pilgrim said the findings raised real concerns about whether enough is being done to monitor health workers for mental health problems and drug use.

“Many healthcare professionals treat themselves or don’t seek treatment at all,” she said.

“It highlights the need for better detection of these problems to provide them with the support they need.”

She said, alarmingly, almost all the healthcare professionals were still licensed to practice at the time of their deaths, despite probable work place impairment.

“How are these potentially preventable deaths not considered workplace incidents?” she asked.

Better oversight needed to prevent more deaths

Researchers say the findings suggest a need to “consider improving the detection and management of drug-addicted and impaired healthcare providers” in Australia to prevent future deaths.

Dr Pilgrim said though overall numbers were small, there was a high death rate amongst anaesthetists.

“Most of these involved taking the drugs they used for work,” she said.

International research shows many healthcare professionals were afraid to speak up about mental health and substance abuse issues for fear of stigma and losing their jobs.

Healthcare workers face additional risk factors such as stress, long working hours, self-medicating and ready access to controlled drugs.

Listen to the story on The Health Report on ABC RN at 5:30pm today, and 5:30am on Tuesday. Or anytime online at www.abc.net.au/radionational/healthreport.

Topics: health, doctors-and-medical-professionals, death, suicide, monash-university-3800

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