Dual diagnosis among physicians: a clinical perspective

J Dual Diagn. 2014;10(3):148-55. doi: 10.1080/15504263.2014.929331.


Co-occurrence of mental disorders and substance use disorders (dual diagnosis) among doctors is a cause of serious concern due to its negative personal, professional, and social consequences. This work provides an overview of the prevalence of dual diagnosis among physicians, suggests a clinical etiological model to explain the development of dual diagnosis in doctors, and recommends some treatment strategies specifically for doctors. The most common presentation of dual diagnosis among doctors is the combination of alcohol use disorders and affective disorders. There are also high rates of self-medication with benzodiazepines, legal opiates, and amphetamines compared to the general population, and cannabis use disorders are increasing, mainly in young doctors. The prevalence of nicotine dependence varies from one country to another depending on the nature of public health policies. Emergency medicine physicians, psychiatrists, and anaesthesiologists are at higher risk for developing a substance use disorder compared with other doctors, perhaps because of their knowledge of and access to certain legal drugs. Two main pathways may lead doctors toward dual diagnosis: (a) the use of substances (often alcohol or self-prescribed drugs) as an unhealthy strategy to cope with their emotional or mental distress and (b) the use of substances for recreational or other purposes. In both cases, doctors tend to delay seeking help once a problem has been established, often for many years. Denial, minimization, and rationalization are common defense mechanisms, maybe because of the social stigma associated with mental or substance use disorders, the risk of losing employment/medical license, and a professional culture of perfectionism and denial of emotional needs or failures. Personal vulnerability interacts with these factors to increase the risk of a dual diagnosis developing in some individuals. When doctors with substance use disorders accept treatment in programs specifically designed for them (Physicians' Health Programs), they show better outcomes than the general population. However, physicians with dual diagnosis have more psychological distress and worse clinical prognosis than those with substance use disorders only. Future studies should contribute to a better comprehension of the risk and protective factors and the evidence-based treatment strategies for doctors with dual diagnosis.

Keywords: dual diagnosis; physicians; self-medication; substance use disorders.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diagnosis, Dual (Psychiatry)
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / complications*
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Mental Disorders / etiology
  • Mental Disorders / therapy
  • Models, Psychological
  • Physicians* / psychology
  • Prevalence
  • Self Medication
  • Substance-Related Disorders / complications*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / etiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy