Experts are calling for urgent action to tackle the “significant challenge” of rising levels of alcoholism and substance abuse among professionals including doctors, dentists and lawyers.
At the first international conference of its kind, in Ireland yesterday, there were calls for the UK government to help the silent mass of professionals who were “functioning alcoholics”.
Rory O’Connor, the UK co-ordinator of health support programmes for dentists and veterinary surgeons, told the Observer that Britain was turning a blind eye to a huge problem.
He said: “There are serious issues regarding health professionals accessing appropriate help for mental health issues and there are serious issues in the treatment that is out there for them.”
Research suggests 15%-24% of lawyers will suffer from alcoholism during their careers, while the British Medical Association estimates that one in 15 healthcare professionals will develop an addiction problem.
Doctors are three times more likely to develop cirrhosis of the liver than the general population.
One indicator of the growing problem is the rise in the popularity of “rehab tourism”. Reports from private healthcare companies indicate a growing number of “mental health tourists” professionals seeking treatment abroad.
O’Connor said: “That is hardly surprising, as they can afford it. These are people functioning with varying degrees and levels of impairment and not likely to seek help among their peers. They can’t go to the hospital down the road where everyone will know them, can they? It’s one reason why they are such a hard-to-reach group.
“If you ask the man in the street what an alcoholic is, they’ll generally say a down and out, but 96% of people with addictions actually function quite well most of the time. They are captains of industry, medical directors, vets, dentists and we need to tackle it and to look at the acceptance that has been going on in their regulatory bodies.”
He said the behavioural health conference, held at Toranfield House addiction centre in County Wicklow, was the first step in sending out a strong message that addiction needed to be tackled in the way smoking had been.
“From an economic perspective, ignoring this issue is not a very wise thing to do, and from a public safety aspect it’s not wise to have people out there who are practising while impaired through addiction.”
O’Connor has established self-help support groups for UK health professionals including doctors, dentists, vets and pharmacists. “Health professionals are generally not good at seeking help for themselves, mainly because they see it very much as their role to help others. There is also immense shame, a stigma still attached to a perceived weakness like addiction.”
Going abroad for help was one way to avoid that stigma, said Keith Pollard, the managing director of Intuition Communication, which runs the information website treatmentabroad.com. He said that while other types of medical tourism were waning in the recession, demand for rehabilitation clinics abroad was on the rise. “That area of the market is doing very well. The driver is a combination of less chance of your treatment becoming public knowledge and putting a distance between (you and) the drinking culture to aid your rehab,” he said.