Use and Misuse of Cognitive Enhancers by Students at an Academic Health Science Center

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Purpose: Prescription stimulant use as "cognitive enhancers" has been described among undergraduate college students. However, the use of prescription stimulants among future health care professionals is not well characterized. This study was designed to determine the prevalence of prescription stimulant misuse among students at an academic health sciences center.

Method: Electronic surveys were e-mailed to 621 medical, pharmacy, and respiratory therapy students at East Tennessee State University for four consecutive weeks in fall 2011. Completing the survey was voluntary and anonymous. Surveys asked about reasons for, frequency of, and side effects of nonprescription misuse of prescription stimulants. Given the sensitive material, an opportunity to win one of ten $50 gift cards was used as an incentive.

Results: Three hundred seventy-two (59.9%) students completed the survey from three disciplines (47.6% medical, 70.5% pharmacy, and 57.6% respiratory therapy). Overall, 11.3% of responders admitted to misusing prescription stimulants. There was more misuse by respiratory therapy students, although this was not statistically significant (10.9% medicine, 9.7% pharmacy, 26.3% respiratory therapy; P = .087). Reasons for prescription stimulant misuse included to enhance alertness/energy (65.9%), to improve academic performance (56.7%), to experiment (18.2%), and to use recreationally/get high (4.5%).

Conclusions: Prescription stimulant misuse was prevalent among participating students, but further research is needed to describe prevalence among future health care workers more generally. The implications and consequences of such misuse require further study across professions with emphasis on investigating issues of academic dishonesty (e.g., "cognitive enhancement"), educational quality, and patient safety or health care quality.