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Reporting Isn’t the Only Avenue When Doctors Misuse Drugs

Doctors aren’t immune from prescription drug abuse. In fact, they become addicted at about the same rate as the general public, meaning that around 10-12 percent of doctors could be significantly impaired while on duty. It’s hard to believe that colleagues and co-workers wouldn’t notice. The question is whether or not fellow physicians are willing to report the problem.

Since the first duty of doctors is to do no harm, the need to protect patients is a compelling reason to file a report. Ethical standards also suggest that turning a blind eye is not acceptable. If physicians aren’t reported, then they also most likely will not seek the help they need.

In a 2007 physician survey, 96 percent agreed that doctors should report colleagues who are impaired or incompetent. Yet only 45 percent of them said that they had done so when actually confronted with the situation. Why not?

Doctors are keenly aware that alerting management to a fellow doctor abusing drugs could mean ending a career. It’s a serious step to take, and one must be absolutely certain. After all, if the signs are relatively new or sporadic, legitimate use of allergy medicine could be the cause.

Some say that the best step is to approach the colleague and tell them of your observations. Give them a chance to explain. In the absence of adequate explanation, give warning that unless they remedy the situation ethical standards will force you to make a report.

There is, however, a third option. Physician Health Programs (PHPs) exist to aid doctors with confidentiality. PHPs have years of experience intervening with at-risk doctors. They are adept at making evaluations and can offer addicted doctors a treatment path that will allow them to return to practice.

Monitoring safeguards protect both the patients and the doctor. These programs boast a remarkable success rate in terms of sustained recovery. Doctors who participate in a PHP often have nothing to fear from the state licensing board.

So when and should a doctor report a fellow physician to the hospital board if drug abuse is suspected? There are multiple answers to the question. Patient care demands first consideration, but that doesn’t mean immediate reporting at the first signs of suspicion. The greater risk is that fellow hospital staff will look the other way, and that is never the right solution.

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