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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Boston Globe Health and Science staff:
Karen Weintraub, Deputy Health and Science Editor, and Gideon Gil, Health and Science Editor.
Short White Coat blogger Ishani Ganguli
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Three-quarters of impaired doctors recover, study says
Three-quarters of Massachusetts physicians being monitored for substance abuse or mental and behavioral health problems successfully completed their programs while continuing to practice, a study by the Massachusetts Medical Society's Physician Health Services program found.
The success rate was nearly identical for both types of disorders, showing that techniques developed for helping physicians with substance abuse can be applied to other problems, the authors reported in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice. But they also found that women fared worse than men.
"We thought men and women would do equally well," said Dr. John R. Knight of Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Boston. "We don't know the exact reasons the women did so poorly. It's really going to require a new look at our program, and I think we've got to consider offering new services for women physicians."
Overall results showed that 75 percent of doctors with substance abuse disorders and 74 percent with mental and behavior problems met all the requirements of the medical society's monitoring program. But women relapsed significantly sooner than men and only 62 percent of women physicians were successful, compared with 78 percent of male physicians.
Five members of the Physician Health Services program, including Knight, looked at 10 years of records for 58 physicians with mental and behavioral problems, such as depression or bipolar illness, and 120 with substance abuse disorders who agreed to monitoring by the program. They were followed for at least three years.
Monitoring included oversight by other physicians they worked with, meetings with supervisors, and drug tests for those with substance abuse problems. Physicians who also had dealings with the state licensing board had a higher success rate than others, especially when substance abuse was involved.
Nancy Achin Audesse, executive director of the state Board of Registration in Medicine, was encouraged by the report.
"I think it is very good news that we have a system in place to identify physicians who are in trouble, to handle them, and to help them back to recovery," she said. "When we have these experienced and capable doctors and they end up with health problems, we don't want to lose them from practice. We want to get them back into healthy practice."