Surgeons are usually exposed to high workloads leading to fatigue and stress. This not only increases the likelihood of mistakes during surgery but also puts pressure on surgeons to use drugs to counteract fatigue, distress, concentration deficits, burnout or symptoms of depression. The prevalence of surgeons taking pharmacological cognitive enhancement (CE) or mood enhancement (ME) drugs has not been systematically assessed so far.
Surgeons who attended five international conferences in 2011 were surveyed with an anonymous self-report questionnaire (AQ) regarding the use of prescription or illicit drugs for CE and ME and factors associated with their use. The Randomized Response Technique (RRT) was used in addition. The RRT guarantees a high degree of anonymity and confidentiality when a person is asked about stigmatizing issues, such as drug abuse.
A total of 3,306 questionnaires were distributed and 1,145 entered statistical analysis (response rate: 36.4%). According to the AQ, 8.9% of all surveyed surgeons confessed to having used a prescription or illicit drug exclusively for CE at least once during lifetime. As one would expect, the prevalence rate assessed by RRT was approximately 2.5-fold higher than that of the AQ (19.9%; 95% confidence interval (CI), 15.9% to 23.9%, N = 1,105). An even larger discrepancy between the RRT and AQ was observed for the use of antidepressants with a 6-fold higher prevalence (15.1%; 95% CI, 11.3% to 19.0%, N = 1,099) as compared to 2.4% with the AQ. Finally, logistic regression analysis revealed that pressure to perform at work (odds ratio (OR): 1.290; 95% CI, 1.000 to 1.666; P = 0.05) or in private life (OR: 1.266; 95% CI, 1.038 to 1.543; P = 0.02), and gross income (OR: 1.337; 95% CI, 1.091 to 1.640; P = 0.005), were positively associated with the use of drugs for CE or ME.
The use of illicit and prescription drugs for CE or ME is an underestimated phenomenon among surgeons which is generally attributable to high workload, perceived workload, and private stress. Such intake of drugs is associated with attempts to counteract fatigue and loss of concentration. However, drug use for CE may lead to addiction and to overestimation of one’s own capabilities, which can put patients at risk. Coping strategies should be taught during medical education.