Struggling with addiction

Dec. 1, 2000
Dental professionals have a higher than average rate of developing problems that can deleteriously affect their ability to practice.

Dental professionals have a higher than average rate of developing problems that can deleteriously affect their ability to practice.

Dianne Glasscoe, RDH, BS

Dear Dianne,

I have worked in a great private practice for the past 10 years. I love my patients, my co-workers, and my boss. So what could possibly be wrong? My employer is addicted to prescription medication.

She began experimenting with "recreational" drugs in college. She went for many years without using drugs at all. However, about four years ago, she underwent some painful surgery. It was through this experience that she began abusing prescription medication.

Our doctor lost her DEA license over a year ago, which causes a continuing hardship for patients needing antibiotics or pain medication. Thankfully, we have an agreement worked out with the physician next door to get prescriptions for our patients.

My employer is a wonderful clinician and is gracious and gentle with patients. However, there are days when she perspires profusely and her hands tremble. Sometimes she becomes agitated over insignificant things and is restless and irritable. On days when she cannot cope, she has the business assistant cancel patients. Our state practice laws do not allow me to work if the doctor is not in the office, so my patients have to be cancelled as well. However, she has always paid our full wages.

Last year, the doctor submitted to a 30-day in-patient treatment program. During that time, we kept the office open by using a temporary doctor. I enjoyed the tranquility of working with someone who is emotionally stable.

Although I have been here 10 years, I question my job security. Do you think I should stay on in this practice or find something more stable? Since I live in a small town, just sign me ...

One Sad Hygienist

Dear One,

You certainly are in a tough situation! Let us consider some of the issues surrounding this problem.

Since you have been in this practice for 10 years, you have developed strong emotional attachments to your co-workers, patients, and even the doctor, despite of her adverse behavior. Obviously, you have some good memories of working in this practice, and you feel at home and comfortable there. I did not sense any negativity about the doctor except for the problems her chemical addiction has caused. I assume you were quite happy in this practice before the doctor`s problems with chemical dependency surfaced.

The physical characteristics you described - agitation, perspiring, trembling hands - are classic for chemical dependency. The trembling hands are especially worrisome for dental care providers, since our profession requires fine hand coordination.

The fact that the doctor submitted to an inpatient treatment program is a step in the right direction. It shows that she desires to get better and is not in denial about her problem.

Dental professionals have a higher than average rate of developing problems that can deleteriously affect their ability to practice. In response, many state dental associations have developed programs to address various personal problems. My home state offers the North Carolina Caring Dentist Program. This program provides a confidential, nondisciplinary way for dentists and hygienists to seek appropriate help for personal problems. Confidentiality is the essential component of the Caring Dentist Program. Additionally, the program is dedicated to helping dentists and hygienists keep their licenses, not lose them.

It`s disturbing when highly intelligent people become entangled in the vicious cycle of addiction. I have talked with people struggling with this problem. What`s immediately apparent is that no one ever intends to become an addict. The battle is a daily one. Some are successful; some are not.

I believe you care strongly for your employer. However, there comes a time when you have to care for yourself. You are the only one who can decide to what degree this situation is negatively affecting you.

If the doctor`s problems are causing you to lose sleep and worry over your job, it`s time to reconsider your employment. It may be difficult to imagine now, but you can also develop strong emotional bonds with new co-workers and patients in another practice.

You may decide that you are strong enough emotionally to weather this storm. If you can leave the office problems at the office and distance yourself mentally from the doctor`s problems, you can be a fortress of strength for your c-oworkers and the doctor. Certainly, your patients are fortunate to have someone as caring as you are.

I cannot tell you what to do in this situation. However, I believe that if you decide to stay, you must learn to protect your own mind and heart against the negative effects of working with someone struggling with chemical dependency.

Don`t let it pull you down. We can remain optimistic that this doctor will be successful in her struggle against drug addiction.


Dianne Glasscoe, RDH, BS, is an adjunct instructor in clinical hygiene at Guilford Technical Community College. She holds a bachelor`s degree in human resource management and is a practice-management consultant, writer, and speaker. She may be contacted by e-mail at [email protected], phone (336) 472-3515, or fax (336) 472-5567. Visit her Web site at http://www.professionalden