Shaken and stirred?BMJ 2005; 330 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.330.7506.1513 (Published 23 June 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:1513
How did the headlines come to overstate the case about doctors with addictions?
Last week the BBC aired a television programme that contained evidence of a problem with drink and drug misuse among doctors in the United Kingdom. The pre-publicity for the programme, Your Life in Their Boozy Hands—part of the Real Story series, a primetime vehicle for newsreader Fiona Bruce—had done its job effectively and garnered headlines on the same day from several national newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, and the Daily Mail
All the papers had picked out a line in the third paragraph of the BBC press release, stating: “The BMA says that one in 15 doctors are addicted to alcohol and, or, drugs.” The Daily Mail added that “the BMA estimates that 13 000 doctors have drink and drug problems that might affect their work.”
The BMA had agreed to participate in the documentary as a way of publicising its attempts to get the government to fund specialist services for doctors with addiction problems. The key medical interviewee was Dr Michael Wilks, the chairman of the BMA ethics committee.
Dr Wilks said that he gave a detailed briefing to BBC researchers, spelling out exactly what the one in 15 statistic referred to—that is, that at some point in their lifetime one in 15 doctors would have some problem with alcohol and/or drugs. He said that he made it clear that this covered different definitions of alcohol “problems,” and did not mean that one in 15 doctors was addicted to alcohol.
However, while the programme itself used the one in 15 statistic accurately, the press release for the programme—which gave rise to the newspaper, website, and broadcast news coverage—simply said, “The BMA says that… 1 in 15 doctors are addicted to alcohol and, or, drugs.”
Dr Wilks said, “The original research is clear: one in 15 doctors, at some point in their lifetime, will have some kind of problem with alcohol or drugs. It is a bland statement, but it clearly doesn't mean one in 15 are addicted.”
The original research consisted of surveys of the general population, the medical population, and medical undergraduates. It also included research on US doctors. The one in 15 doctors figures includes medics who may have drink-drive convictions, or a problem as limited as a single drink to aid sleep.
Dr Wilks, who has campaigned for years for appropriately designed services for doctors who become addicted to drink or drugs, said that he was given valuable airtime by BBC Breakfast News and BBC Five Live last week to promote his cause, but instead spent it correcting the error in the BBC press release. “This one in 15 figure came up at every single interview and I had to correct it, using up half the discussion time.”
He said that the hard data showed no evidence that doctors had higher instances of addiction than others in the population. “If you look at the levels of drug dependence that require active treatment or some degree of separation from work duties, then you are talking about 4-5% of the population. OK, that is still a large number but it is in the rest of the population too.”
Dr Wilks told the BMJ, “The programme was excellent: totally balanced and reflected what I said to researchers.” He said that it was the BBC press release that got it wrong and misquoted its own programme. “The press release put out an alarming and inaccurate statement. This had to be corrected by the BMA in a statement on Tuesday,” he said.
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, said: “Addiction figures are hard to come by, but we do not think the figure is higher than in the general population. However, doctors work in very stressful environments in a culture where it is difficult to seek help.”
In response the BBC press office said that the BMA had contacted them close to transmission to clarify the “one in 15” figure. “Once the error was realised, we amended subsequent material, including news bulletins and the BBC website,” said a spokesperson.