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Treating Addicted Patients Poses Medical Dilemma, but Should It?

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By Becca Owens

When you hear that someone has been diagnosed with a disease, you may begin to circle through thoughts of cancer, diabetes or maybe autoimmune or degenerative disorders. It is less likely that you consider the disease of addiction, although it is extremely prevalent and affects lives just as deeply as any other serious health issue. American culture has come a long way in recent decades in recognizing addiction as a disease, but many people still misunderstand addiction. In the process, they miss out on caring for addicted friends and family in helpful and loving ways.

What Stigma Looks Like in Society

Doctor holding stethoscopeA recent survey showed that 53 percent of Americans consider addiction a disease. This is certainly a higher percentage than the public consciousness of days past; however, almost half of the US population does not believe that addiction should be considered a disease. What is more concerning, though, is the bias many people have against those with an addiction. A staggering 58 percent of people say they would not want to work closely with someone fighting an addiction, and only 18 percent of respondents said they would be okay having a friend with an addiction.1

Although these questions could be interpreted in different ways with varying implications, it is clear that Americans view addiction in a different category than other diseases the medical community actually groups them with.2 A Johns Hopkins study also showed that many people see drug addiction as morally inferior to mental health disorders, which have become increasing destigmatized in recent years.3

After many years of fighting to change the way people view mental illness — both through sharing personal stories and through public policy efforts — change is taking place. However, addiction research and education receive much less funding and attention than mental health, and the effect on how society views it is apparent.

Stigma in the Medical World

How does this stigma — not wanting to work closely with someone with an addiction — impact the quality of healthcare doctors are willing to give to patients who have an addiction? Bias against those with addiction continue to present in interesting ways.

Doctors and other medical personnel certainly face a dilemma when it comes to treating patients who are actively addicted to substances. It is easy for doctors to view these patients and their needed treatments and procedures as not as worthy of their time and efforts as those without an addiction.

Additionally, some patients need procedures because of problems directly resulting from drug use, and continued drug use can render the treatments ineffective in certain cases. Therefore, doctors are faced with the decision of whether or not to continue to treat patients who are in this predicament because the treatments could be seen as a wasted effort if they return to drug use.4

Stigmas Lead to Double Standards

These medical professionals may seem to make a valid argument — until you realize that they do not refuse treatment for patients with diabetes simply because they aren’t monitoring their sugar intake well. And doctors don’t stop treating heart patients who continue to work in high-stress jobs. Suddenly, the double standard comes into focus.

Is it fair — or even ethical — to choose which patients to treat based on whether or not they will make needed lifestyle changes? Of course, patient education is an important aspect of any medical treatment, and education must be clear and compelling for patients to put it into action. However, the patients are responsible for the changes they must make, not the doctors. Doctors can teach patients about how they must change to help medical treatments last, but patients must do the work of change.

How to Effect Change

Public consciousness is complex, and change takes time. The reality is that drug addiction — to both prescription and illegal drugs — is an epidemic in the US.5 There is a higher likelihood of knowing someone addicted to drugs of some sort than not. Therefore, we must continue to educate ourselves on how to help and how to love people within their addiction in order to help them move beyond it.

If you or someone you love is fighting an addiction, we want to help. At Michael’s House, we offer multiple tracks of addiction treatment with outpatient and residential options. We seek to treat the whole patient in order to give the best possibility of lasting change and lifelong recovery. Please call us now to speak to a caring admissions coordinator about what your journey to health can be like.

1 Miller, Julie, “Fact File: Half of America agrees addiction is a disease.”, April 13, 2018.

2Understanding Drug Use and Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Addiction, August 2016.

3 Desmon, Stephanie and Susan Morrow, “Drug addiction viewed more negatively than mental illness, Johns Hopkins study shows.” Johns Hopkins University, October 1, 2014.

4 Goodnough, Abby, “Injecting Drugs Can Ruin a Heart. How Many Second Chances Should a User Get?New York Times, April 29, 2018.

5About the U.S. Opioid Epidemic.” US Department of Health and Human Services, March 6, 2018.