California has closed its confidential program that allowed physicians to continue to practice medicine while undergoing treatment for alcohol and drug abuse. There have been many cases of medical malpractice, even those involving injury and death, committed by physicians in treatment programs administered by state medical boards. Many physicians successfully recover while under such programs but some abuse patients and drugs and alcohol in the process. The theory is that if the physicians are monitored, drug and alcohol tested, and comply they can beat the addiction and retain their licenses. Some think that the licenses should be suspended until the physician has proved recovery from the addictions. The problem, however, is that if the programs are discontinued then many physicians may refuse to undergo treatment and continue to practice anyway making the problem worse. Florida has a similar program for professionals including not just physicians but also lawyers, pharmacists and others.
The programs are mostly confidential meaning that the patients do not have a right to know if their physician has or is under a drug treatment program. This is a difficult problem. We want to encourage recovery and keep good doctors helping patients as long as they are in recovery. The issue is whether a patient has a right to know about the fact that their doctor is in a state run recovery program while he treats the patient.
Perhaps a fair solution is to permit the physician to remain in a confidential recovery program but if the physician violates the terms of the treatment then the information should be made public to the patient. Also if a physician is accused of medical malpractice the information should be public so that the patients can determine if the addiction was related to the bad medical care. Since addiction is a disease, and one that can be treated confidential recovery programs are probably a good idea. The shield of confidentiality should not, however, be used as a sword against patients who are harmed by a physician involved in substance abuse but unable to obtain recorded information about the abuse because of its confidential nature.
For more information on this subject, please refer to the section on Medical Malpractice and Negligent Care.