Young doctors self-prescribing regularly

Also prescribing for family and friends
  • Deborah Condon

Young Irish doctors appear to be regularly prescribing drugs for themselves, family members, friends and colleagues, a new study has found.

According to the findings, this type of prescribing is widespread, and includes addictive and controlled substances, such as opiates and sedatives.

The study was carried out by researchers at St Patrick's University Hospital, who warned of the potential legal pitfalls associated with this practice. They also pointed out that self-prescribing has been linked with an increased risk of suicide among doctors.

Previous research in this area is limited, partly due to a fear of repercussions among participants if they disclose this information. To get around this, the researchers posted an anonymised online survey on a closed Facebook group for young doctors in 2017.

At the time, almost 4,500 young doctors belonged to the group and among these, 729 responded to the 16-question survey.

Among those who responded, two in three were younger than 31 and just 60 were qualified GPs or consultants. The rest were trainees, however they came from a range of specialties, including surgery, paediatrics, psychiatry and emergency medicine.

The study found that 67% of the respondents had prescribed for themselves, while 72% had prescribed for family members. Some 58% had prescribed for friends and 59% had prescribed for colleagues.

Almost all - 93% - had been approached by family, friends and colleagues to prescribe drugs. This, the researchers said, suggests that doctors may feel under pressure to prescribe to people they know.

The study also found that doctors over the age of 30 were twice as likely to self-medicate than those under the age of 30.

Meanwhile, between 3% and 7% of respondents had self-medicated with sedatives, opiates or other psychotropic drugs.

Men were more likely than women to self-medicate with opioids, and were also three times more likely to prescribe these drugs to friends, and seven times more likely to prescribe them to colleagues.

Meanwhile, 43% of women had prescribed the oral contraceptive pill for themselves.

Patterns of prescribing behaviour varied by specialty. For example, GPs and paediatriciains were more likely to prescribe to family members, while surgeons were more likely to prescribe to friends.

"Prescribing outside a professional relationship can place the doctor in a compromised position and is unlikely to be covered by conventional malpractice insurance, exposing the doctor to legal or professional recourse in the event of an adverse reaction or prescribing error," the researchers warned.

They also pointed out that there are many ethical and patient safety implications involved in this practice.

They concluded that "self-prescribing and prescribing to personal contacts remains widespread among young Irish doctors".

"Further education is needed to protect doctors from the risks posed by this practice, namely, risks on physical health or of addiction and suicide," they said.

They called for this topic to be included in undergraduate medical degree and postgraduate training, as well as continuing professional development.

Details of these findings are published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.


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