Prescription opioid abuse and dependence among physicians: hypotheses and treatment

Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2008;16(3):181-94. doi: 10.1080/10673220802160316.


Physician impairment is a serious public health issue affecting physicians as well as their families, colleagues, and patients. Though physicians generally display healthier habits than members of the general population, overall rates of impairment are similar among both groups, and prescription drug abuse (including prescription opioids) is particularly problematic among physicians. The current review focuses mainly on prescription opioid abuse and dependence among physicians. It includes a brief history of early physician experiences with anesthetic and analgesic agents, and explores several hypotheses regarding the etiology of prescription opioid abuse and dependence among physicians. Barriers to identification and to treatment entry among physicians are discussed. In addition, methods of assessment and successful treatment in specialized impaired physician programs are described. Medical and psychosocial interventions, 12-step involvement, and extensive use of evaluations are highlighted. Attention is paid to typical follow-up contracting and monitoring strategies, as well as strategies for prevention. Given the extremely positive outcomes demonstrated by specialized programs for treating impaired professionals, it is recommended that their methods be disseminated and utilized in treatment centers for the general public.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid*
  • Anesthetics*
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Drug Prescriptions*
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / diagnosis
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / rehabilitation
  • Physician Impairment / psychology*
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Anesthetics