Where can physicians struggling with chemical dependency issues (a.k.a. substance use disorder, addiction to alcohol and/or drugs) go to get addiction treatment in a confidential setting, without jeopardizing their medical licenses, coworkers support and patients’ ongoing trust?
When a medical doctor or other professional healthcare worker becomes chemically dependent on alcohol and/or drugs, most states have a Physicians Health Program that “coordinates effective detection, evaluation, treatment and continuing care monitoring of physicians (who are) suffering from addictive, psychiatric, medical, behavioral or other potentially impairing conditions.”
The main point is, when a professional healthcare worker becomes impaired, confidential state-certified addiction treatment programs are available that balance a physician’s welfare and patient safety.
Fortunately, these physician health programs (PHPs) have been found to be s extraordinarily effective.
In fact, research by DuPont, et al. indicates these specialized treatment programs that focus on the unique needs of medical professionals—including use of rewards-based strategies and extensive follow-up care—have a success rate of roughly 75%, which is substantially higher than the average 50 percent rate for the general population.
More than one in 10 doctors become addicted to drugs or alcohol, a slightly higher rate than in the general population. Burnout, a recognized problem in the medical professions, and the easy availability of drugs likely make addiction more common among doctors.
However, physicians and other professional healthcare workers who struggle with chemical dependency often delay or ignore altogether the seeking out of any help, for fear they will lose their licensure and therefore livelihood, as well as their reputation and standing amongst loved ones and in the community.
Hence, the importance of confidentiality in the state-referred PHPs/treatment programs – meaning that in nearly all states struggling physicians (and other healthcare workers) are able to complete specialized treatment plans, rather than lose their license because of drug or alcohol addiction, or both.
The initial step for an addicted healthcare worker to take is a mental and behavioral health assessment. Following that, the physician/healthcare professional signs a contract agreeing to complete a specified amount of time in residential treatment at an approved facility of their choice and submit to a five-year drug and alcohol monitoring program.
It should be noted that if a physician/healthcare worker relapses after treatment, his or her license may be suspended; and if the relapse brings up the possibility of patient endangerment, their medical license can be revoked.
Typically, PHPs monitor professional healthcare workers for five years using random drug tests every few days in the beginning, tapering to every few months later on. It’s common that a follow-up care plan includes regular assessments, as well, typically performed by the original treatment center staff.
Another indicator of the success rate the PHPs demonstrate is that throughout the standard five-year follow-up program, 80% of physicians remain “clean and sober” and 70 percent continued to practice medicine.
For physicians to remain sober after they return to typically high-pressure jobs with easy access to controlled substances, there has to be a “big payoff” embedded in the overall design of the treatment plan and follow-up care – in their cases, it’s keeping the medical license that cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of their lives to obtain.
Confidential, nationwide, physician health programs were designed to make it easier for doctors to seek help for addiction, especially since one of the biggest challenges doctors (or anyone, for that matter) with a drug or alcohol dependency faces is overcoming the guilt and shame connected with addiction. With the availability of getting into a state-certified PHP, doctors and other professional healthcare workers struggling with a substance use disorder can do so in confidentiality, thereby making the first step toward recovery and a new life free from active addiction.
 Federation of State Physician Health Programs (State Programs (fsphp.org))
 DuPont, R.L., et al. “Setting the standard for recovery: Physicians’ Health Programs.” Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. Mar. 2009.