"We want people to be aware of this because we want to be able to honestly look at ourselves and say here is the issue we need to support people," said Kaups, chair of the American College of Surgeons Governors Committee on Physician Competency and Health.
Kaups says substance abuse problems may be particularly insidious and difficult for surgeons to admit. "There is the idea that ‘I can take care of crazies and disasters, so I am in control. The alcohol is just to take the edge off because I deal with enough things,'" she says. "We also know that in general, the characteristics we value in our professional lives, things like perfectionism, commitment to patients, those things put people at risk of burnout as well."
Alcohol disorders target female surgeons particularly hard. The survey found that 25.6% of female surgeons indicated that they have alcohol use issues, compared with 13.9% of their male colleagues. By contrast, in the general population, 9.4% meet the criteria for alcohol and substance abuse, including 10.5% of men and 5.1% of women.
"Part of it is that female surgeons on the whole are less likely to be married or in a supportive relationship," Kaups says. "It is changing as we look at the younger surgeons. But the lack of personal and social support is a really key thing when you are dealing with difficult and challenging issues."
The anonymous online survey is the latest in a series of studies the American College of Surgeons has undertaken recently to assess members' stress, burnout, and other job pressures. Kaups says failure to address these problems could have significant repercussions for patient safety and access.