Medical School Secrets: Study finds alcohol and drug abuse in med school

Marijuana; alcohol use prevalent in med school
Posted at 11:27 PM, May 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-12 23:27:31-04

On the day we spoke with him, Dr. Tim Huckaby was going on about 8 hours sober. "It's really just one day at a time," he told us from his Orlando office. A licensed anesthesiologist who treats pain, Dr. Huckaby has spent more than half his life battling his own painful addiction.

"I'm not proud of some of the things I've done," he said while choking back tears. "I'm proud that I made a change and I'm not that person anymore," he said visibly emotional.

What started with alcohol in college graduated to pain meds in 2008 after a heart catheterization. "You're walking around with incredible amounts of drugs in your pocket every single day," he described.  "Easy access," he said. 

Ultimately, intervention by fellow physicians forced Dr. Huckaby to change. Intervention came in the form of a plane ticket to a recovery center. "I get emotional," he said. "If they hadn't helped me I would have died because I couldn't stop," he said.


Addiction is a problem, up to 15% of physicians nationwide struggle with.

But a new Florida study is revealing how the key to stopping doctors and addiction might be catching it early, as early as medical school. In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr. Lisa Merlo, a clinical psychologist at the University of Florida and Director of Research for the Professionals Resource Network spent the last few years researching substance use and abuse in medical schools across Florida. She found drug and alcohol use among medical school students is common. 

"It's a wake up call for people," she said. Merlot hopes the study opens people's eyes to the stigma that exists with addiction and medical professionals. "I hope a key takeaway is physicians should be allowed to be patients too," she said.

"Almost a quarter reported use of marijuana during med school, that was much higher than I would have expected," she said.

Merlot also hopes the study will be used by medical schools to catch addiction issues early so students walking out of medical school are less likely to become addicted doctors. 

"I think the take away for medical schools is you have an opportunity and an obligation to help students develop into the healthiest physicians they can be," she said. "It's much easier treating addiction problems or psychiatric issues early as opposed to waiting until they become more severe," she said.

Of students surveyed from all of Florida's 9 medical schools, Merlot and her team found:

  • 46.8% of medical school students admitting to using marijuana at some point in their lives.
  • Nearly a quarter (22.7%) of med students admitting to using marijuana during medical school.
  • 46.9% of students surveyed admitted their prescription drug use increased during med school. Most (64.3%) admitted those prescriptions didn't belong to them.
  • 96% of medical students admitted to drinking alcohol. 6.7% of those students admitting they might have a drinking problem.

Source: Comprehensive Statewide Multi-Dimensional Evaluation of Medical Student Wellness in the State of Florida

The study, which hasn't been published yet, is already triggering reaction.

"This is a very significant problem," said Dr. Joseph Fantone, Senior Associate Dean at the University of Florida's College of Medicine.

"I think this underscores that this is an issue that we need to confront head on," he said. "I don't think it's a secret, I think students are aware of it," said Dr. Joseph Fantone, UF College of Medicine.

For years, UF's College of Medicine has offered counseling to students. It's also now expanding its wellness program to help spot students showing signs of addiction. 

Still, the topic of medical students and substance abuse breeds secrecy. Several other Florida medical schools we contacted refused to talk about it. Two medical school students with their own stories of addiction backed out of our interviews.

"I think there's a real stigma," said Dr. Tim Huckaby. "You think your doctor is going to be someone who doesn't smoke, doesn't drink and doesn't do drugs," he said. 

Dr. Huckaby is no longer a practicing anesthesiologist. "Today I treat people. I'm the medical director of the Orlando Recovery Center. I help people get off drugs," he said. Telling his own story of being a doctor on drugs after being a student with a growing, secret addiction. 

"As long as we keep it in the closet, we can't address the issue," said Dr. Tim Huckaby, a doctor in recovery.

For more on the study, click here.

Comprehensive Statewide Multi-Dimensional Evaluation of Medical Student Wellness in the State of Florida

What you didn't know about medical students and suicide

Many studies have shown that burnout among medical students is high. According to one study, physician training appears to be the peak time for distress among physicians. Burnout is more prevalent among physicians than among peers in the general US population. It's estimated up to one physician per day commits suicide.

One in 10 students in medical school is thinking about killing themselves.


Stress, burnout, difficulties, demands, competition, money, debt, witnessing patient suffering, witnessing patient deaths, pressure, depression...the list goes on.

Source: Comprehensive Statewide Multi-Dimensional Evaluation of Medical Student Wellness in the State of Florida

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What Florida Medical Schools are doing to help students showing signs of distress:

  • University of Florida- the medical school has a full-time counselor on staff to help students. The College of Medicine is also expanding its wellness program in an effort to help students. Staff is trained to look for students showing signs of trouble.
  • Florida State University- the medical school provides assistance to students seeking access to confidential treatment programs that will not jeopardize a student's professional career goals.
  • The College of Medicine has an affiliation with the Professionals Resource Network (PRN) and, depending on the circumstances, may refer students there for confidential assistance. The student may be asked to undergo a formal evaluation and could be required to undergo mandatory drug testing, or have additional requirements imposed by our Student Evaluation & Promotion Committee.
  • University of South Florida- did not want to participate
  • Florida Atlantic University- did not respond to our questions
  • Nova Southeastern University- waiting for response
  • University of Miami- waiting for response
  • University of Central Florida- waiting for response
  • FIU- waiting for response
  • Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine- the college has an early screening and intervention program and works with the Physicians Resource Network. LECOM also has a full-time Director of Behavioral Health who meets with students seeking treatment, at least once per month. The college is expanding its wellness program for students by offering more training and personal services including wellness days where students can enjoy yoga classes and other opportunities.

Source: Comprehensive Statewide Mult-Dimensional Evaluation of Medical Student Wellness in the State of Florida

The Physicians Resource Network is a nationally recognized, non-profit 501(c) 3 created to help impaired health care professionals in the U.S. Florida's program is widely considered among the most progressive programs and is open and available to struggling health care professionals and medical students. For more information on PRN click here. 


Professionals Resource Network


Source: Comprehensive Statewide Mult-Dimensional Evaluation of Medical Student Wellness in the State of Florida

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