A longitudinal study of substance use and abuse in a single class of medical students

Lila G. Croen, Mary Woesner, Merrill Herman, Michael Reichgott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Purpose. A longitudinal study to ascertain the attitudes toward, and habits of, substance use among a single class of medical students. Method. A single class from a northeastern medical school was surveyed in both its first year (February 1991, 176 students) and its third year (May 1993, 170 students). The students were asked to report how frequently during the prior year they had used drugs or alcohol, and whether their use of each substance bad increased, decreased, or remained the same since entering medical school; to identify any family members with histories of alcohol or drug problems; and to report any incidence during the prior year of ten behaviors associated with substance dependence. The students were also asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement with 11 attitudinal statements. Additional attitudinal items asked the students to identify three major deterrents to the abuse of drugs and alcohol, and what they had done if they had become aware of a classmate with a drug or alcohol problem. Chi-square analysis and two-tailed t-tests were used to compare data from the two surveys. Results. The response rates in the first and second surveys were 96.9% and 81.8%, respectively. Use of licit and illicit substances was comparable to that of chronological peers and prior national studies of medical trainees. Most of the students admitted to using alcohol at least once in the prior year (91.8% and 95%, respectively). In both years marijuana was the illicit drug used most often. Although there was a slight increase over time in the use of benzodiazepines (2.4% to 5.8%) and a decrease in the use of marijuana (29.4% to 21.7%), these changes were not significant. Few of the students in their third year reported using any substance other than alcohol more than once a month. In general, a greater percentage of the students reported a decrease rather than an increase in the use of a substance since entering medical school; the primary exception was for wine. As they progressed in their training, the students became less concerned about the effect of substance use on their performance and more likely to be embarrassed about admitting to an addiction. Although in each year a few of the students appeared to be at risk for substance dependence (8.9% and 3.5%, respectively), no student came to the attention of the administration because of problems related to substance use. While most of the students were unaware of any classmate who had a problem, half of those who were aware had done nothing, and the balance had rarely sought assistance from the faculty or administration. Conclusion. Although there was no evidence that substance use was a major problem, a few of the students appeared to be at risk for drug or alcohol dependence. Appropriate intervention, support, and referral systems should be identified for the few who may be at risk, and increased educational efforts are needed to help all students address this issue with their peers and, ultimately, with their patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)376-381
Number of pages6
JournalAcademic Medicine
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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