You wouldn't think physician health programs — designed to help doctors recover from substance abuse — would be such a contentious topic. But more than a few physicians complain that participation is “coercive” if a physician wants to retain his license.
The programs are run on a state level, and have evolved into for-profit entities, according to physicians who have been through one. You can find one in all 48 states and Washington, D.C., charged with preventing “substance abuse problems among physicians and to detect, intervene, refer to treatment, and continuously monitor recovering physicians with substance use disorders.” (J Subst Abuse Treat 2009;37:1.)
Physician health programs (PHPs) are funded a variety of ways depending on location, including state licensing board grants, fees charged to participants, and contributions from state medical associations, according to reports. When a physician agrees to cooperate with the PHP and adhere to any and all recommendations, it decreases the probability he will be subject to disciplinary action and increases the likelihood he will be able to remain in practice, PHP proponents say. But not everyone agrees.
“Participation is coercive, and once a PHP recommends monitoring, physicians have little choice but to cooperate if they have any intention of ever practicing medicine again,” J. Wesley Boyd, MD, PhD, and John R. Knight, MD, former PHP associate directors in Massachusetts, said in an editorial in the Journal of Addiction Medicine. (2012;6:243.)
Physician health programs report results of compliance, including drug test results to licensing boards, credentialing agencies, and employers whether the physician is sober, compliant with his treatment, and capable of safely practicing medicine.
“Programs are generally structured to encourage professionals to get help early before the onset of problems in the workplace, but the consequences depend on the situation and the state policies,” said Warren Pendergast, MD, a psychiatrist and the CEO of the North Carolina PHP (NCPHP).
North Carolina's PHP was audited in 2013-2014. “There were a number of protections they wanted us to institute. There was a conflict of interest issue raised about our every-other-year retreat having a small amount of contribution from assessment and treatment centers, and we stopped that in 2012. Our policy was similar to many medical meetings sponsored by vendors,” said Dr. Pendergast.
Drs. Boyd and Knight said in their editorial the programs have a compliance mentality that reports physicians to their medical board for possible disciplinary action if they don't comply with the program's recommendations, depriving the physicians of having a say in their own treatment.
So why are physicians opting into these programs? Colleagues can recommend them for an evaluation and they have to comply, and others who self-refer just don't know any better, said Susan Haney, MD, an emergency physician in Oregon, who went through treatment assigned by her state's PHP.
“That's the problem. You assume, as I assumed, that the medical board is staffed with caring and competent physicians, and that the health program is there to help. So you go to them naïvely asking for help or your colleagues refer you to them thinking you'll get help. I guess some people find help. But a lot of physicians are exploited by the system,” she said.
Robert DuPont, MD, the president of the Institute for Behavior and Health and a supporter of physician health programs, said such criticisms aren't looking at what the programs have achieved. “Outcomes are very positive, with only 22 percent of physicians testing positive at any time during the five years and 71 percent still licensed and employed at the five-year point,” according to a study Dr. DuPont co-authored. (J Subst Abuse Treat 2009;37:1.)
Abstinence rates among substance-abusing physicians who engage with PHPs are in the 75 to 80 percent range, which is far higher than almost any other form of substance abuse treatment. This can be attributed to PHPs' demographic and higher socioeconomic status, compared with those in other substance abuse programs, and the risk-to-reward ratio is often higher for PHP participants. (BMJ 2008;337:a2038.)
“Programs have no leverage. They have no punishment; they have no consequences. The consequences are all kneaded out by other organizations, by the medical boards or the hospitals. I think all these critics have gotten it mixed up. The physicians who are coming to the PHPs have big problems; they're under a lot of pressure, not from the PHP but from somewhere else.”
Dr. DuPont's study said PHPs don't provide formal addiction treatment, either, but instead function as long-term case managers and monitors for participants. Evaluations through PHP-recommended treatment centers aren't usually covered by insurance, for example, and can cost as much as $4,500 for a 96-hour evaluation, if not more, and can go as high as $39,000 for a typical three-month length of stay.
“If treatment is priced so high that it is out of the reach of potential physician-patients, it does not serve the purpose for which it was created and thus represents an administrative and management failure on the part of the PHP,” Drs. Boyd and Knight wrote. (J Addict Med 2012;6:243.)
Because many centers that specialize in evaluating health care professionals also provide costly treatment, Drs. Boyd and Knight said they are left wondering whether financial incentives play a role in the recommendation. Reports argue that physicians charge a lot for their time and services, so they are financially able to pay more than a non-physician would for the same treatment. “In our experience, it is far more common for physicians to simply stay at the same facility for treatment rather than packing up and moving elsewhere,” they wrote.
Evaluation and treatment centers support PHPs financially, too, adding to a potential conflict of interest between the two. Dr. DuPont said he thinks the price to pay for assessments and treatment, however, is small compared with the perspective of a lifetime of well-being. “My experience is that PHPs are certainly willing to work with physicians on cost issues. I think it's not realistic to think the people in the programs are not going to need treatment. To me it goes without saying the treatment is part of the package,” he said.
North Carolina has a scholarship program administered through the state's Medical Society Foundation, and the several-thousand-dollar assessments are part of the reason the program screens. “We don't send everybody for assessment,” said Dr. Pendergast.
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