Suicide committing by drug overdose

Healthcare Workers at Higher Risk for Drug Overdose Death

Social workers and other behavioral healthcare workers were found to be 112% more likely to die of a drug overdose than non-healthcare workers, according to a recent study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

Registered nurses (51% more likely) and healthcare support workers (100% more likely) were also found to be at a significantly heightened risk of drug overdose death compared to non-healthcare workers.

Findings published in the Annals of Internal Medicine were based on a nationally representative cohort from the 2008 American Community Survey, which was followed for mortality through 2019. The researchers estimated risks for drug overdose death among healthcare workers vs. non-healthcare workers, analyzing data to determine overdose deaths for the following 6 groups within healthcare:

  • Physicians;
  • Registered nurses;
  • Other diagnosing/treating healthcare workers;
  • Health technicians;
  • Health support workers; and
  • Social or behavioral healthcare workers.

For all healthcare workers studied, 84.5% of drug overdose deaths were considered to be related to opioids and 76% were deemed unintentional. Among non-healthcare workers, 76% were opioid-related and 85% were unintentional.

In a news release announcing the study, Mark Olfson, MD, MPH, professor of epidemiology at Columbia Public Health and professor of psychiatry at Vagelos College of Physicians & Surgeons, noted that those who prescribe or administer medications “have ready access to opioids and other controlled prescription drugs and also frequently have job stress and occupational burnout—all of which have been associated with increased risk for opioid use disorder, which in turn can increase the risk for overdose.”

Moreover, healthcare workers who routinely perform physically strenuous tasks are at risk of suffering injuries that can require pain management, such as the use of prescription opioids, Dr Olfson added.

“Although recent progress has been made in developing specialized programs to provide substance use treatment for physicians, few programs exist for other healthcare professionals with substance use problems who were found in this study to be at increased risk,” Dr Olfson said. “More generally, these new findings draw attention to the importance of identifying healthcare workers who may be struggling with substance use problems, helping them to access confidential and effective treatment.”

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