Doctors and drinking during the pandemic

By Alistair Gardiner
Published March 4, 2021

Key Takeaways

When you combine the anxiety of living with a deadly pandemic, the tedium and loneliness of social isolation, longer work hours, and gravely sick and dying patients, you end up with physicians drinking more alcohol.

The estimated rate of substance abuse in medical professionals is similar to that of the general population—somewhere between 10%-15% of all US medical professionals will misuse alcohol or drugs at some point over the course of their career.

And, as a nation, we’ve been drinking more since the pandemic began, despite the known health risks and negative side effects of alcohol. When the quarantine hit last spring, national alcohol sales spiked, according to Nielsen, with in-store sales increasing by about 55% for the week ending March 21, 2020, compared with one year before—and online sales up 243% at that time. The following month, the WHO issued a warning about alcohol use during the pandemic, and its potential to exacerbate health concerns and risk-taking behaviors.  

The recent findings of two Medscape physician surveys shed some light on the drinking habits of US physicians as the pandemic has rolled on. According to Medscape’s 2021 Physician Burnout & Suicide Report, roughly 42% of doctors reported experiencing symptoms of burnout, and more than a quarter of respondents said they drank alcohol to cope with these symptoms. Over 12,000 US physicians from 29 specialties responded to the survey between August and November 2020—and its findings, published in February, point to some worrying COVID-19-related trends. 

Looking at the alcohol data by age group, the pandemic appears to have exacerbated drinking across the board, according to Medscape’s companion survey, Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report 2021. Five or more drinks a week is now standard fare for about 30% of Baby Boomer physicians, 26% of Generation X physicians, and 22% of Millennial doctors. That’s up from the 2020 lifestyle report, which showed that roughly 21% of Boomer doctors reported having at least 5 drinks a week, compared with 19% of Generation X-ers, and 17% of Millennials. About a quarter of physicians said they don’t drink at all, according to the 2021 lifestyle report, but those who do consume alcohol reported an uptick in their drinking.

These figures vary when you look at each medical specialty individually. Let’s take a look at the top five specialties currently drinking the most, according to Medscape.

1. Orthopedists

Of all the specialties surveyed, orthopedists are imbibing the most, with 29% reporting that they drink at least 5 alcoholic beverages weekly and just 18% saying they don’t drink at all. Interestingly, this is also the specialty that reported being among the happiest outside of work both before the pandemic (86% reported being happy outside of work in 2020) and after (66%).

Despite this, burnout remains rampant among orthopedists. More than a third of respondents to Medscape’s survey said they feel burned out, or both burned out or depressed, and 33% said they drink to cope with this. Nearly 70% said their burnout is having either a moderate or severe impact on their life, and 14% are even contemplating leaving medicine because of it. It’s no wonder so many are turning to booze.

2. Emergency medicine physicians

It should come as no surprise that emergency medicine physicians have made it onto this list, given the nature of their jobs—especially since the pandemic hit. According to the survey, 27% of EM doctors have 5 or more drinks weekly and 34% reported drinking to cope with burnout symptoms. While this percentage places them second on the list of specialties that drink the most, there are also many EM physicians who don’t drink at all—nearly 21% told Medscape that they never use alcohol. 

Furthermore, 44% of EM physicians told Medscape they feel burned out, or both burned out and depressed, and three-quarters said this is having a moderate to severe impact on their life. 

3. Urologists

According to the survey, 26% of urologists reported drinking at least 5 alcoholic beverages a week, and only 13% don’t drink at all.

While urologists aren’t the heaviest-drinking specialty, they report the highest rate of burnout/depression on this list. According to Medscape, roughly half of all urologists reported symptoms of burnout, or both burnout and depression, and 74% reported these symptoms as having a moderate or severe impact on their life.

4. Ophthalmologists 

One-quarter of ophthalmologists told Medscape that they drink at least 5 alcoholic beverages a week, while roughly a fifth said they don’t drink at all. What’s more, 24% of respondents said that they’re drinking to deal with burnout symptoms. 

Ophthalmologists are reportedly having a tougher time due to COVID, with 35% saying they’re feeling either burned out, or both burned out and depressed, and 60% saying the pandemic has had a moderate or severe impact on their lives.

5. Plastic surgeons

Of plastic surgeons responding to Medscape’s survey, 23% reported drinking 5 or more alcoholic beverages a week, and just 14% said they don’t drink at all. A little over a quarter of plastic surgeons said they drink to cope with burnout symptoms. 

While plastic surgeons appear to have fared a little better than the above specialties during the pandemic—with just 24% reporting experiencing burnout, or both burnout or depression—they still tend to drink more than many other specialties surveyed in the Medscape report.

Bottom line

Stress is getting to all of us, and while moderate drinking can be fine for some people, excessive drinking is never going to solve your problems. To prevent alcohol-related health issues, you might want to follow the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend no more than 1 drink per day for women, and no more than 2 drinks per day for men. 

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