Doctors Are Failing Patients with Alcohol Use Disorders

Did you know there are prescription drugs designed to help people who have alcohol abuse disorders? As a matter of fact, there are several medications ­– including acamprosate and disulfiram, to name two – that help people who suffer from alcohol abuse to cut back on their drinking. Yet healthcare professionals rarely prescribe these drugs to their patients, even if the healthcare professional is aware that their patient suffers from alcohol use disorder.

This refusal to properly treat patients based on the standard of care could be described as medical malpractice. If a doctor fails to properly diagnose a client for a chronic illness such as heart disease, for example, and the patient suffers a heart attack as a result, that healthcare professional is likely to be sued for medical malpractice. If a doctor fails to diagnose or treat a substance use disorder like alcoholism, that doctor could potentially be liable.

What is a substance use disorder?

According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a substance use disorder is a condition that occurs when the constant use of alcohol and/or drugs begins to significantly impair every facet of a person’s life, including health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home. There are many reasons why people turn to alcohol or other drugs: post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, recreational use.

Whatever the reason, the long-term damage is the same. The longer a person uses and abuses alcohol or drugs, the harder it will become to wean the person off of the substance. Although substance abuse is not categorized as a chronic illness, the long-term use of alcohol or other substances can lead to chronic illnesses for a patient. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol use causes several chronic diseases from heart disease and liver disease to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Can a doctor be sued for his patient’s alcoholism?

No. No healthcare professional can be held liable for a patient drinks excessively. In Mississippi, medical malpractice is an act or omission of the act by a physician during the treatment of a patient that deviates from the accepted norms of practice in the medical community and causes an injury to the patient. Simply being an alcoholic and seeing a doctor does not constitute medical malpractice.

But a doctor could be held liable if:

  1. He recognized a substance use disorder and did not warn the patient of the risks.
  2. He lied on the patient’s medical records about how often the patient drank.
  3. He refused to treat a patient because he “doesn’t approve” of drinking.
  4. He didn’t take a full medical history, including asking information about drinking.
  5. He knowingly prescribed a medication that can be affected by alcohol use, and failed to warn his patient about the possibility that the medication may fail.

Further, a rehabilitation or detox center could potentially be held liable for medical malpractice if they knowingly withheld medications that could help (despite claiming that they employed the use of such medications for their patients), and if such withholding caused a patient’s injuries. Withdrawal symptoms can be severe and even life-threatening in some cases. A center which forced a person with a substance use disorder to quit “cold turkey” could be liable if that patient suffers significant injuries as a result of the detox.

Why so many healthcare professionals withhold substance use medications

A healthcare professional has the ability to prescribe a patient medication to prevent the chance of a potential heart attack from occurring, depending on the patient’s heart condition. The same standard could be applied for a patient suffering from alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder. Yet, many health care professionals fail to properly prescribe patients who suffer from alcohol use disorder with medication.

There are several reasons why this may occur, but they largely fall into two categories.

Society’s stigma of substance use

Although 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, only 10% of Americans receive treatment. The reason for this could be the shame and stigma that society still places on people who suffer from substance abuse addiction. Patients who suffer from substance use disorder may want to avoid the perceived judgment from others – including their healthcare providers. Healthcare providers may not view alcohol use disorder as serious as heart disease or diabetes.

Lack of proper knowledge regarding substance use and abuse

Many healthcare professionals do not have experience treating addiction – and that goes for the people who run “rehab” centers, too. This lack of training could lead to uncertainty from identifying signs of substance use to taking the necessary steps to combat the addiction. It also means that they are unlikely to prescribe medications to combat the urge to drink because they simply do not know such drugs exist.

Lack of resources for people struggling with addiction

It is worth noting that many medical professionals do not take any courses or do any rotations for substance abuse. Instead, patients are left to find their own counselors, psychiatrists, or addiction specialists. This could be because compared to other states, the percentage of people in Mississippi who drink excessively is fairly low. Per the United Health Foundation’s 2020 report, about 14.5% of Mississippi residents engage in excessive drinking, compared to about 18.6% of the country as a whole. As such, the state lacks the resources that other states have, perhaps because healthcare practitioners here don’t see alcohol use as a serious issue compared to other issues, like the closing of rural hospitals or opioid abuse.

At Merkel & Cocke, PA, we represent clients in Mississippi whose doctors have failed to uphold their duty of care. With offices in Oxford, Greenville, Jackson, and Clarksdale, there is always a Mississippi medical malpractice lawyer nearby to help. Please call us at 662-627-9641 or complete our contact form to schedule a consultation today. Also serving Tupelo and the Gulf Coast.