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Monday, March 31st 2008

Why Physicians Should Be Able To Seek Confidential Alcohol & Drug Treatment

As I type, front page on CNN is a profile piece on a plastic surgeon and several of his patients who are upset he continued to operate while in an alcohol treatment program.

[Dr.] West is an alcoholic, according to a Medical Board of California decision, and a member of the state’s Physician Diversion Program.

The program keeps the doctors’ identities private, so it allowed him to continue to treat patients, even operate on them, while he was secretly getting treatment for his addiction.


A study by the Federation of State Physician Health Programs found about one percent of all physicians practicing in the United States are in confidential treatment. That’s about 8,000 doctors whose patients may have no idea they are addicts.

A physician doesn’t have to disclose his drug or alcohol troubles and gets to keep practicing on unaware patients. A little shocking at first light. Let me tell you why it isn’t and why I think these confidential treatment programs are extremely important.

The most important point to make, and the one that the CNN story blindly misses, is that in most states, certainly in Texas, these are programs for physicians who voluntary come forward.

A Martini And A #11 Scalpel

These are not programs for physicians who have been caught practicing under the influence, who have made mistakes because they’ve been inebriated. The way I understand it, these are physicians who sought help of their own volition. Physicians without documented professional troubles secondary to substance abuse.

That is an incredibly important point. It is highlighted in this quote from the CMA president,

[T]he California Medical Association, a physicians advocacy group, is fighting to keep the program running, and to keep the names of doctors enrolled confidential.

The association’s president, Joe Dunn, told CNN, “We believe very strongly this is the absolute best way to ensure patient safety. We need to get physicians out of the shadows.”

Dunn believes if the program is shut down in July, doctors will continue to feed their addiction privately and not get help. He argues, “Without a diversion program, no one knows. Patients don’t know. Health professionals who could help don’t know.”

It absolutely positively is the difference between having more physicians out there who are actively abusing substances with patients none the wiser and having physicians out there who are getting treatment for abusing substances with patients none the wiser. I don’t think, when framed appropriately like such, that that is really any choice at all.

These are important programs.