High risk of drug overdose for nurses and other health care workers

High risk of drug overdose for nurses and other health care workers

High Risk of Drug Overdose Deaths Among Healthcare Workers

The United States is grappling with a staggering increase in drug overdose deaths. Recent research has shed light on the fact that healthcare workers, including nurses, social and behavioral health care workers, and health care support workers, are facing a significantly higher risk of succumbing to drug overdoses. This is a concerning issue that calls for urgent attention and effective solutions.

The study, led by Dr. Mark Olfson, a professor of psychiatry, medicine, and law at Columbia University Medical Center, examined data from 176,000 healthcare workers aged 26 and older between 2008 and 2019, comparing them to 1.6 million non-healthcare workers. The findings revealed that social workers and other behavioral health care workers were more than twice as likely to die from overdose compared to non-healthcare workers. Additionally, health support workers had double the odds of dying from a drug overdose, while registered nurses had about a 50% higher likelihood.

While the reasons behind these elevated death rates are not explicitly stated in the study, Dr. Olfson suggests that stress may be a significant contributing factor. Healthcare workers often carry the weight of caring for seriously ill individuals, a responsibility that can take a toll on their mental and emotional well-being. Dr. Smita Das, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Addiction Psychiatry, agrees, mentioning that the rigorous training and job responsibilities of healthcare workers contribute to their high stress levels.

However, stress is not the only factor at play. Olfson highlights that access to opioid medications may be an issue for registered nurses, and home health care aides, who frequently experience physical injuries, may turn to opioids as a means of pain management, potentially leading to addiction. Olfson also suggests the need for greater oversight in administering and disposing of controlled substances.

In the case of social and behavioral health workers, the reasons for their higher overdose rates are less clear. However, it is possible that individuals in these roles, who provide substance use counseling, have a history of drug use themselves, which could increase their susceptibility to addiction. Clearly, addressing these issues requires innovative initiatives that reduce stress, mitigate burnout, identify at-risk workers promptly, and facilitate confidential substance use evaluation and treatment.

Furthermore, the study sheds light on the importance of the overall well-being of healthcare workers themselves. These individuals bear the responsibility of caring for others but often neglect their own health and well-being. As overdose rates continue to rise in society, the unique impact on healthcare professionals has not received adequate attention until now.

It is essential to note that while overdose does not always indicate a substance use disorder, many cases are interconnected. Healthcare workers may not have enough time to address their own physical and mental health needs thoroughly, and acknowledging a substance-related issue can have adverse implications on their licensing and credentials.

To combat the challenges faced by healthcare workers, effective treatment strategies for substance use disorders should be prioritized. These strategies can include medication-based treatments and cognitive behavioral therapy. In the case of overdose, ready access to naloxone and public education regarding its use are crucial for reversing the effects of an overdose.

Dr. Das emphasizes the importance of improving access to mental health treatment, which can help address underlying conditions that contribute to substance misuse. Additionally, punitive policies that discourage healthcare workers with substance use disorders from seeking treatment must be reformed. Stigma surrounding seeking substance use treatment services must also be challenged, alongside reevaluating drug testing policies for workers with previous drug use histories.

In conclusion, the elevated risk of drug overdose deaths among healthcare workers demands immediate attention. By implementing comprehensive and compassionate measures that prioritize their mental and emotional well-being, we can ensure that those who dedicate their lives to the care of others receive the support and resources they need. Furthermore, enhancing the quality and effectiveness of the care provided by healthcare workers is of utmost importance. Together, we can strive towards a healthier and safer environment for these integral members of our society.


  1. Study: Mark Olfson, MD, MPH, et al. “Drug Overdose Deaths Among Healthcare Workers,” Annals of Internal Medicine, August 8, 2023 (Online).

  2. Resource: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Drug Overdose Information