Impaired doctors fear impact on careers

Addicted physicians must overcome significant fears about the impact on their careers and personal lives before they are willing to ask for help, so risk managers can help by assuring them the process will be about rehabilitation and not punishment, according to two experts in the field.

Clare Waismann, executive director of the Waismann Method, an opiate dependency treatment center in Beverly Hills, CA, that often treats physicians, says it is important to remember that what sounds like help to risk managers can sound like punishment to a physician. For example, she says, a requirement that impaired physicians complete a 30-day rehab program before seeing patients again can sound extremely punitive to a physician who would have to leave a busy practice and financial obligations.

"If you make it very hard for the physician to seek help, requiring 30-day rehab and being away from their practice for a long time, you are harming not just the physicians but also the patients they will continue to treat," she says. "The punishment can be so bad that they will wait until their condition is very, very severe before they get help. They want help, but they can't handle the punishment."

That type of fear means that rehab for physicians may need to be more creative and more flexible than the typical scenarios that can work for nonprofessionals, she says.

Similar advice comes from Betsy White Williams, MBA, PhD, clinical director at Professional Renewal Center in Lawrence, KS, which also treats impaired physicians. She points out that physicians often do not know what resources are available through the health care provider. Risk managers should ensure that the hospital's wellness committee or similar program is actively promoting itself to physicians, she says.

Physicians also can be very uncertain about exactly how to ask for help, because they don't know what happens next, Williams says. "They may want help, but they fear what happens once they trigger that sequence of events," she says. They need to know that asking for help doesn't immediately create a legal problem, and that asking for help does not mean "volunteering to be punished," Williams says. "Educating them about this is critical to getting them to come forward," she says.

Sources

For more information on treatment for addicted physicians, contact:

  • Clare Waismann, Executive Director, Waismann Method, Beverly Hills, CA. Phone: (888) 987-HOPE. E-mail: info@opiates.com.
  • Betsy White Williams, MBA, PhD, Clinical Director, Professional Renewal Center, Lawrence, KS. Telephone: (785) 842-9772. E-mail: bwwilliams@prckansas.org.