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Study sheds new light on healthcare workers’ drug-related deaths

Between 2003 and 2013, nearly five deaths per 1000 employed Australian healthcare professionals were caused by drugs, new research has revealed.

The Monash University study aimed to identify the best approaches to healthcare professionals’ drug use and their mental healthcare needs.

The team analysed drug-caused deaths of physicians, nurses, dentists, psychologists and psychiatrists, physiotherapists, pharmacists, paramedics and veterinarians reported to the coroner. The research revealed that between 2003 and 2013, there were 37 drug-caused healthcare professional deaths, on average, each year.

These deaths commonly involved women in their mid-40s, with a diagnosis of mental illness, personal and professional stress, and the intent to self-harm. Drugs were sourced from the workplace in nearly a fifth of cases.

Just over half of the deaths recorded were intentional self-harm deaths, followed by unintentional deaths, at about 37 per cent. Mental illness was diagnosed in almost half of the cases, with the majority involving depression. A number of cases reported stressors such as a relationship, or workplace or money issues.

Dr Jennifer Pilgrim, head of the Drug Harm Prevention Unit at Monash University, said the study also found a significant association between specific professions and drugs of choice, and added the research revealed some different trends from those shown in existing literature.

"For example, nurses, dentists and pharmacists reportedly gravitate towards misuse of opioids; however, in this study, these healthcare professionals misused opioids along with other substances, namely benzodiazepines,” Pilgrim said.

Nursing Review sat down with Pilgrim to discuss the study’s observations on occupation-specific drug choice and how the information might inform approaches to healthcare professionals’ drug use and mental healthcare needs.


For mental health support, contact Lifeline at 13 11 14 or beyondblue at 1300 22 4636.


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