May 12, 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stress, burnout, difficulties, demands, competition, money, debt, witnessing patient suffering, witnessing patient deaths, pressure, depression...the list goes on.
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.