Programs Let Addicted Docs Practice

It looks like California might actually end its health professional recovery program. This article discusses the issue in pretty sensational terms.

Nearly all states have confidential rehab programs that let doctors continue practicing as long as they stick with the treatment regimen. Nationwide, as many as 8,000 doctors may be in such programs, by one estimate.

These arrangements largely escaped public scrutiny until last summer, when California’s medical board outraged physicians across the country by abolishing its 27-year-old program. A review concluded that the system failed to protect patients or help addicted doctors get better.

Opponents of such programs say the medical establishment uses confidential treatment to protect dangerous physicians.

“Patients have no way to protect themselves from these doctors,” said Julie Fellmeth, who heads the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law and led the opposition to California’s so-called diversion program.

Most addiction specialists favor allowing doctors to continue practicing while in confidential treatment, as does the American Medical Association.

Supporters of such programs say that cases in which patients are harmed by doctors in treatment are extremely rare, and would pale next to the havoc that could result if physicians had no such option.

“If you don’t have confidential participation, you don’t get people into the program,” said Sandra Bressler, the California Medical Association’s senior director for medical board affairs.

California’s program ends June 30. If no alternative program is adopted, the rules could revert back to the zero-tolerance policy in place before 1980, when doctors who were found by the medical board to have drug or alcohol problems were immediately stripped of their licenses.

No other state has followed California’s lead. But the president of California’s medical board, Dr. Richard Fantozzi, said that behind the scenes, regulators nationwide share his ambivalence toward such programs.

“To hide something from consumers, something so blatant … it’s unconscionable today,” Fantozzi said.

I don’t know anything about the situation in California, but I suspect that any state with a lousy program would be vulnerable to this kind of action. In that case, you’d have two options: to improve the program, or end the program. If the state has a good monitoring and enforcement program, patients shouldn’t have anything to fear. The other advantage of a good program is that they usually have a voluntary program for health professionals who have not been reported by anyone, but are concerned about their own use.