The Impaired Physician

Doctors are only human.  They are prey to the same frailties that plague the rest of us.  Like the rest of us, some of them become addicted to alcohol or use narcotics or other substances that can affect their judgment and performance.  Unfortunately, when this happens, their human frailty can affect the health of those of us who are or who become their patients.

Injection Drug Use and Wound Botulism | Botulism | CDC

If you think you are unlikely to encounter an impaired physician, you are wrong.  Current estimates are that 10 to 15% of physicians will experience impairment due to alcohol or drugs at some point during their careers.  Many of the same character traits which draw them to medicine and which help them become successful physicians are the same traits that predispose them to depression and substance abuse.  Physicians often find it difficult to admit to human failings, even to themselves.  They will vigorously deny any suggestion that they have an impairment problem.

Over the years I have been practicing law, I have seen a number of instances of impaired physicians harming patients.  I am sure that what I have seen is only the tip of the iceberg, however.  The statistics suggest that there are far more impaired physicians causing far more harm than ever comes to my attention or to that of the Arizona Medical Board.

Although I am frequently critical of the Arizona Medical Board, I do congratulate them on the diligence with which they approach the impaired physician.  Once an impaired physician is identified, the Board does a good job of getting them away from patients, suspending their license to practice, and of assisting them to get off substances and to return to treating patients responsibly.

The big problem for the Board, however, is recognizing the impaired physician in the first place.  Unless the Board receives a complaint, it has very little way of knowing a physician is impaired.  Many impaired physicians go unreported.  Not only are impaired physicians adept at hiding their impairment, they can count on the reluctance of those around them to report suspicions they may have, especially if the person with the suspicions is a nurse or other health professional who is rungs below the physician in the pecking order.  Those who report a doctor for suspected impairment can expect retaliation, if the allegation is not substantiated by testing.  Sometimes, friends of the impaired doctor may retaliate, even when the allegation is substantiated.  Many nurses and other health care professionals decide that it is just not worth the hassle or the risk to report their suspicions of impairment and choose to look the other way.

If you encounter a physician whom you suspect may be impaired, get away from that person as quickly as possible.  This is what you should do no matter how simple you may think the doctor’s care for you may be.  An impaired physician need not be a heart surgeon to cause you harm.

You are under no obligation to report your suspicions to anyone and there are any number of excuses you can offer for wanting to change physicians.  On the other hand, if you believe your suspicions are well-founded, you do the public a service by reporting impaired physicians.  As in all other matters medical, be alert.  Trust but verify.


Posted in Arizona Medical Board, disclosure of medical mistakes, Doctors, health, Hospitals, medical errors, medical ethics, Medical Malpractice, medical mistakes, Medical Negligence, Nurses, Secrecy |