Nurses and substance use: There’s help

Learn how nurses struggling with alcohol or drug misuse can find care and maintain their career

For nurses, work and personal stress can push them to use alcohol or drugs to cope. Continued use may result in health issues or problems in their work, school, or home life. Eventually, the nurse may develop a substance use disorder.

To learn more about substance use disorder, go to the Centers for Disease Control website Understanding Addiction to Support Recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of nurses self-medicating to cope and maintain balance. Unfortunately, stigma and other barriers stop nurses from seeking the help they need.

But there are ways to get around those barriers. If you’re a nurse or care about a nurse, read on to find out how to get that help.

Breaking through stigma and the “conspiracy of silence”

Nurses are just as likely to develop substance use disorder as the public. The American Nurses Association (ANA) estimates that 6–8% of nurses use alcohol or other drugs to an extent that may affect their ability to do their jobs.

Stigma and fear contribute to a “conspiracy of silence” about substance misuse among nurses and other healthcare professionals. This can prevent them from seeking help and getting access to treatment.

The good news is that health care organizations have begun to adopt a Just Culture approach to reduce stigma and develop open communication. This means that instead of punishing people who are using drugs and alcohol, these organizations take a helping approach.

The Washington state legislature recognizes substance use disorder as a disease like diabetes and asthma. Why? Because this disorder can gradually worsen, and people can experience setbacks after improving. Treatment and supportive monitoring is the answer.

When health care workers with substance use disorder get the right treatment, they can recover and can continue to practice their profession safely and competently.

To support early identification and rehabilitation, nurses and other health care workers may be referred to a DOH-approved substance use monitoring program. One program like this is called Washington Health Professional Services, or WHPS.

How WHPS helps nurses recover and keep their jobs

WHPS is the Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission’s approved alternative to discipline substance use monitoring program. Nurses may use the WHPS service to get help with substance use and protect their medical licenses.

The WHPS program offers the following services to help nurses recover:

  • Referral for evaluation and treatment
  • Random drug testing
  • Facilitated support group meetings
  • Participation in self-help meetings (12-step, SMART Recovery, etc.)
  • A structured return to practice process and workplace monitoring
  • Routine progress reports

Structured monitoring supports the nurse’s long-term recovery and allows the nurse to continue or return to practice in a manner that safeguards the public. The WHPS brochure provides more information.

The Nursing Commission supports treatment options

The Nursing Commission recently released a position statement on substance use disorder and the nursing profession. The statement provides background and a framework for how the commission supports early identification, referral for treatment, and safe return to practice.

Nurses may voluntarily participate in WHPS without being referred by the commission. The advantages of voluntary participation are:

  • Nurses can get immediate attention and referral to treatment; and
  • Nurses are not subject to disciplinary action, and their participation is not made known to the commission.

To learn more about WHPS services, or request an educational presentation, contact Dr. John Furman at 206–999–9689, or email John.Furman@doh.wa.gov

More Information

Information in this blog changes rapidly. Sign up to be notified whenever we post new articles. For more information from the Washington State Department of Health, visit doh.wa.gov.

Questions about COVID-19? Visit our COVID-19 website to learn more about vaccines and booster doses, testing, WA Notify, and more. You can also contact the Department of Health call center at 1–800–525–0127 and press # from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday, and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday — Sunday and observed state holidays. Language assistance is available.

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Washington State Department of Health

Washington State Department of Health

Protecting and improving the health of people in Washington State.