About 15% of surgeons have alcohol abuse or dependency problems, a rate that is somewhat higher than the rest of the population, according to a new survey.
The researchers also found that surgeons who showed signs of alcoholism were 45% more likely to admit that they had a major medical error in the past three months.
"Surgery is a stressful business. There are people who turn to alcohol to help deal with their stress," said Dr Edward Livingston, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, who was not involved in the study.
"Does that affect their performance? Who knows?" he said.
Depressed and burnt out
The researchers, led by Dr Michael Oreskovich at the University of Washington, sent out a survey to more than 25 000 surgeons.
The questions asked about work, lifestyle and mood, and several were used to screen for alcohol abuse or dependency.
Overall, 15% of surgeons showed signs of alcohol problems. Other studies have estimated that, among the general population, the number is about 9%.
The study did not determine why alcohol problems might be more common among surgeons.
Oreskovich's results showed that alcohol problems were linked with the doctors reporting depression and burnout as well.
Even within the various fields of medicine, surgery is considered particularly demanding.
"The nature of the beast is that the percent of emergencies, the percent of afterhours work, and actual scheduled work itself all require an energy and concentration that is really different than a lot of the other specialties," Oreskovich said.
About 14% of male surgeons and 25% of female surgeons showed signs of alcohol problems.
The study could not explain why women appear to be more at risk of alcoholism in this group.
"Observations from previous studies show that the stress of being a surgeon, and balancing professional and personal obligations, is much more prevalent in female than male surgeons," Oreskovich told Reuters Health.
Errors, alcohol linked
Among the 722 physicians who said they had a major medical error in the past three months, 77% of them scored within the range of having alcohol problems.
These results "show there's a big problem and that we need to do something about it, especially for the patients but also for the physicians' health and well being," Oreskovich said.
"Obviously, this is a signal for further study," he added.
One of the limitations of the survey is that only about 7 200 surgeons out of the 25 000 queried responded to the survey.
In an editorial accompanying the report in the Archives of Surgery, Livingston points out that this is a very low response rate.
"If you have a low response rate, you don't know if it represents the universe of people you're trying to study," he told Reuters Health.
Oreskovich said it's possible that the percent of surgeons with alcoholism is underestimated in this study, "because I think the folks who are less likely to respond may have shame and guilt and fear associated with their alcohol abuse and dependence that they don't want to report on the survey."
He said that other studies of physicians who go into rehabilitation show very low relapse rates back into substance abuse.
(Kerry Grens, Reuters Health, February 2012)