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Hazelden Betty Ford program speaks to challenges facing impaired nurses

May 14, 2014
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Administrators of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation's specialized care track for nurses with substance use disorders seek to place treatment for nurses on par with the concentrated level of care and ongoing support that impaired physicians receive.

While there are similarities in the presenting issues that affect all healthcare professionals with substance use problems, nurses often experience a shorter duration of treatment and tend to return to a relatively chaotic working environment where they can be particularly susceptible to relapse. The director of Hazelden Betty Ford's Nurses Professionals Program says a gap in nurses' rate of recovery vis-à-vis that of doctors became a major driver of the program's establishment.

“We're trying to mimic what physicians have access to, to the extent that we can,” says program director Michael K. Humphrey, BSN, RN.

Nurses in the Hazelden Betty Ford program receive all the services delivered in the facility's Health Care Professionals Program, but also participate in a weekly nurse-exclusive group and are able to move from primary treatment to Hazelden Betty Ford's St. Paul, Minn., location for continuing care. The Nurses Professionals Program launched last summer.

Humphrey says that allowing nurses to experience treatment with other nurses offers numerous benefits. “They don't feel so alone,” he says. “They begin to see the good in each other.”

Moreover, placing healthcare professionals in non-specialized programs often generates undesired dynamics. “If a healthcare worker goes into a primary unit, he or she becomes the doctor or the nurse of that unit,” Humphrey says. “It becomes a big distraction.”

Humphrey says that in general, healthcare professionals can be susceptible to substance misuse and other problems because they tend to take care of their patients better than they take care of themselves. But the nature of the workplace differs between nurses and, for example, physicians. Whereas doctors tend to work more in office-based environments where they may have more control over their schedule, nurses tend to operate in a less orderly hospital environment characterized by irregular work shifts and more susceptibility to workplace injury.

Also, nurses' stays in primary treatment may be shorter than those of doctors, meaning that they will need more aftercare support, Humphrey says. And because of the nature of their work, they are even more exposed than doctors are to the medications that could threaten a lasting recovery.

Humphrey said in a news release about the Hazelden Betty Ford program, “One of our key findings was that, for the nursing professional, substance use disorders are typically treated as an acute disease rather than a chronic condition.”

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