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A Prescription for Trouble: Nurses Turning to Pharmaceutical Drugs to Cope with Stress

A Prescription for Trouble: Nurses Turning to Pharmaceutical Drugs to Cope with StressOver the past two years, the global public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has placed an enormous amount of pressure on healthcare workers. Nurses, in particular, have felt this strain. Between the high volume of patients in need of extensive, round-the-clock care, and staff shortages due to illness and those leaving the profession, nurses have been under a tremendous amount of stress. Perhaps, then, it should not come as such a surprise that prescription drug misuse, which refers to the use of prescription drugs without a prescription or at a higher dosage than prescribed, was prevalent among nurses during the pandemic.

A recent study published in the Journal of Nursing Regulation and reported  by the web-based medical news service provider MedPage Today, found that “rates of prescription drug misuse among nurses were nearly double that of the general population, though their overall drug misuse was lower.” The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, took place during the COVID-19 pandemic and included survey responses from more than 1,200 randomly selected nurses across nine states. According to the study, 11.4% of the nurses surveyed screened positive for substance use problems, with 6.6% being characterized as having substance use disorders (SUDs).

In a concerning trend, the study also revealed that 15.8% of nurses working in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities were misusing prescriptions. This was among the highest rates of prescription drug misuse, second only to nurses working in home health and hospice (19%). Additionally, the study showed that, when compared with a reference group of nurses working in businesses, schools and other settings, “nurses in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities had triple the odds of alcohol use and five times the odds of nicotine use.”

While at least some of this increase in prescription drug misuse can likely be attributed to the strain of the pandemic, at least one of the study’s researchers believes the study revealed a trend that was already occurring but which was made worse by the conditions during the pandemic.

Of course, the news that nurses are misusing prescription drugs and turning to other substances such as alcohol and nicotine at high rates to cope with the strain of the pandemic – on top of the usual everyday stress of nursing – is cause for concern. But not just for the nurses’ health. Patients must be considered as well.

What does nurse drug misuse mean for patient care?

Healthcare patients, particularly those in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, depend heavily on the nurses who attend to their daily needs. Patients’ needs are so specific, particularly regarding the dosage and timing of required medications, that nurses must be on top of their game at all times. Even just one seemingly minor mistake on the part of a nurse could have serious, possibly even deadly, consequences for a patient. If a nurse is misusing prescription drugs or relying heavily on substances such as alcohol or nicotine to get through their shift, is that nurse capable of providing the level of care patients need and deserve? Any error or negligence on their part could really hurt a patient and, depending on the circumstances, could be considered medical malpractice.

Even if a nurse is only using these substances during her time away from work, taking a prescription drug too often or at the wrong dosage can have long-term consequences that affect their ability to do their job. A nurse who shows up for a shift high or intoxicated may miss an important detail in a patient’s chart or a symptom or sign of an issue while caring for them. They may be shaky, making them a terrible option for assisting patients who are already unsteady and may need a helping hand at times to keep them on their feet or help them from bed to wheelchair. Likewise, a nurse who is suffering the effects of a hangover from prescription drugs, alcohol, or other substances may put patients in danger.

What should you do if you suspect prescription drug misuse?

If you have a parent or other loved one living in a nursing home or assisted-living facility and you suspect that one or more of the nurses or other staff in charge of your loved one’s care is or may be misusing prescription drugs or other substances, it is imperative that you speak up immediately. Your concerns should be brought to the facility manager right away. You should also document as much information related to the incident as possible, such as the date and time the incident occurred, and the behavior you observed that caused concern. The nursing home or assisted-living facility should address the issue immediately, but it is important to follow-up to be sure your loved one is receiving the level of care which they deserve.

If your loved one is injured or dies unexpectedly while undergoing medical care at a hospital, nursing home or assisted-living facility, you should consult an experienced South Carolina medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible. Their injury or death may have been caused by a nurse or other facility employee or caregiver who was misusing prescription drugs or alcohol. At McGowan, Hood, Felder & Phillips, LLC, our medical malpractice lawyers represent clients throughout South Carolina, and we work hard to ensure you receive the compensation and justice that you and your loved one deserve. Contact us today to schedule a consultation. Give us a call at 803-327-7800 or complete our contact form to schedule your appointment.