Drinking problems may be impairing some surgeons

Patients undergoing surgery in the Chicago area may understandably be nervous about the outcome of the procedure. Any surgical error or poor quality of care could suddenly lead to a serious injury orwrongful death.

While patients and their families would like to believe that all doctors are highly skilled and take every precaution necessary to prevent malpractice, a new study of alcohol dependency among surgeons may give patients and their families little comfort. It reveals that approximately 15 percent of surgeons who responded to the survey reported behavior or symptoms indicative of a drinking problem.

The survey was sent to 25,000 licensed surgeons. Approximately 1,112 of the 7,197 responding surgeons provided answers indicating that they have an alcohol dependence or abuse problem. Twenty-six percent of women who responded to the questionnaire had alcohol dependency issues while among men the figure was a lower 14 percent.

Researchers summarizing their findings concluded that such alcohol abuse constitutes a significant problem and could interfere with a surgeon’s ability to operate on a patient without making a serious or fatal error. Although errors caused by impaired surgeons are estimated to affect only one in 10,000 patients, no patient should ever be at risk of becoming a victim of medical malpractice because his or her surgeon was too impaired to perform the surgery safely.

Some commentators noted that researchers received a low rate of response to the questionnaire. Some argued that this meant that the study’s results may not accurately reflect the surgical profession as a whole and alcohol dependency problems may actually affect fewer surgeons in the U.S. than the study suggests. Others wondered whether the rate of alcoholism might not be even higher than reported, as some surgeons with alcohol problems might be ashamed or fearful about reporting their problems.

U.S. surgeons are not routinely screened for alcohol or drug abuse. However, such screening is common in other professions where impaired performance may have an impact on public health or safety.

Source: Medical Daily, “Study Reveals that 15% of Surgeons Have Alcohol Dependency,” Christine Hsu, Feb. 23, 2012

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