About 15 per cent of surgeons have alcohol abuse or dependency problems, a rate that is somewhat higher than the general population, according to a US study.
Researchers, who published their findings in the Archives of Surgery, also said that surgeons who showed signs of alcoholism were 45 per cent more likely to admit that they had a major medical error in the past three months.
The team, led by Michael Oreskovich at the University of Washington, sent out a survey to more than 25,000 surgeons, of whom some 7,200 responded.
Questions were asked about work, lifestyle and mood, and several were used to screen for alcohol abuse or dependency.
Overall, 15 per cent of surgeons showed signs of alcohol problems. Other studies have estimated that, among the general population, the rate of alcohol problems is about nine per cent.
The study did not determine why alcohol problems might be more common among surgeons, whose field is considered particularly demanding, but did show that alcohol problems were linked with the doctors who were reporting depression and burnout as well.
"The nature of the beast is that the per cent of emergencies, the per cent of after hours work, and actual scheduled work itself all require an energy and concentration that is really different than a lot of other specialities," Oreskovich said.
About 14 per cent of male surgeons and 25 per cent of female surgeons showed signs of alcohol problems, though the study could not explain why women appear to be more at risk. "Observations from previous studies show that the stress of being a surgeon, and balancing professional and personal obligations, is much more prevalent in female than male surgeons," Oreskovich added.
Among the 722 physicians who said they had a major medical error in the past three months, 77 per cent of them scored within the range of having alcohol problems.
"Surgery is a stressful business. There are people who turn to alcohol to help deal with their stress," said Edward Livingston, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who was not involved in the study.
"Does that affect their performance? Who knows?" In an editorial that accompanied the report in the Archives of Surgery, Livingston said the response rate to the survey - 7,200 out of more than 25,000 - was very low.
"If you have a low response rate, you don't know if it represents the universe of people you're trying to study," he told Reuters Health.
Oreskovich said it's possible that the per cent of surgeons with alcoholism is underestimated in this study because the people who were less likely to respond might have shame and fear associated with their alcohol abuse and dependence that they don't want to report on the survey.
Studies of physicians who go into rehabilitation show very low relapse rates back into substance abuse, he added.