When a health care professional has an addiction, help may be as close as an employee assistance program or a residential treatment center. The state of Minnesota has a role as well.

For instance, Fairview Health Services (www.fairview.org) might offer counseling or other treatment to an employee at no charge, according to Jennifer Encinger, manager of employee assistance. The organization focuses on prevention and patient safety, she added.

Prevention may mean debriefing after a traumatic situation, including a reminder to monitor chemical intake, especially if employees develop trouble sleeping. "We also offer education on stress management, grief and loss to help so that hopefully we are preventing many of these problems from developing," Encinger said.

Who's affected?

Because they make up the majority of those employed in healthcare, nurses account for the highest percentage of health professionals with addictions (60 percent) followed by physicians, pharmacists and dentists, according to Monica Feider, program manager of the Health Professionals Services Program (HPSP), a Minnesota state agency founded in 1994 to help and monitor medical professionals with addictions and other illnesses (www.hpsp.state.mn.us).

Health care professionals may enroll in HPSP confidentially or may be referred by a supervisor, family member, treatment provider, employee health program or colleague. State professional boards also may refer to HPSP, if the worker is under a formal disciplinary proceeding.

"We work with all regulated health professionals in Minnesota," Feider said, monitoring people with substance, psychiatric and medical illnesses that could affect their practice.

Treatment in action

HPSP helps workers set up a treatment plan involving a mental health provider, pain management specialist, addictionologist, chemical dependency counselor or another specialist to treat their illness and report back to HPSP.

Treatment may be residential. Hazelden (www.hazelden.org) began a treatment program for health care professionals in Center City, Minn., last June and treated 111 people in the first six months, according to program founder Omar Manejwala, M.D.

It's usually more difficult to detect addiction among health care professionals because of the peer pressure to refrain from using drugs and alcohol at work, Manejwala said. Conversely, addicted health professionals usually take longer to treat.

"It's really hard to be a patient if you are a health care provider," Manejwala said. "We have had health care providers show up with their lab coats and stethoscopes."

Health care professionals are also expected to suppress their emotions, which makes recovery difficult. But one study of 904 physicians treated for addiction for an average of 72 days and followed for seven years revealed a sobriety rate of 78 percent, according to Manejwala. "That is nothing short of remarkable," he said.