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Physician health programs: ‘Diagnosing for dollars’?


 

As medicine struggles with rising rates of physician burnout, dissatisfaction, depression, and suicide, one solution comes in the form of Physician Health Programs, or PHPs. These organizations were originally started by volunteer physicians, often doctors in recovery, and funded by medical societies, as a way of providing help while maintaining confidentiality. Now, they are run by independent corporations, by medical societies in some states, and sometimes by hospitals or health systems. The services they offer vary by PHP, and they may have relationships with state licensing boards. While they can provide a gateway to help for a troubled doctor, there has also been concern about the services that are being provided.

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Physicians find their way to PHPs in a number of ways. A doctor whose behavior suggests impairment can be referred to the PHP by his employer, or by a licensing board, following a complaint. In these instances, participation often is a condition of employment or of continued licensure, and the PHP serves as an agent of the hospital or the state. Doctors may also be referred to PHPs for monitoring if they ascribed to having a diagnosis of psychiatric illness or substance abuse, either now or in the past, and are with or without obvious impairment. Finally, PHPs serve as a portal to treatment for physicians who self-identify and self-refer in an effort to get help. Their use is encouraged in an effort to prevent bad outcomes from mental health conditions, stress, and substance abuse, in those who are suffering in ways that would not otherwise call attention to their plights. In these situations, the PHP may serve as the agent of the patient or client, but there may remain dual-agency issues if the physician says something that leads the PHP to be concerned about the doctor’s fitness. Compliance with PHP recommendations, including drug screening, might be mandated, and physicians may resent these requirements.

Louise Andrew, MD, JD, served as the liaison from the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) to the the Federation of State Medical Boards from 2006 to 2014. In an online forum called Collective Wisdom, Andrew talked about the benefits of Physician Health Programs as entities that are helpful to stuggling doctors and urged her colleagues to use them as a safe alternative to suffering in silence.

More recently, Dr. Andrew has become concerned that PHPs may have taken on the role of what is more akin to “diagnosing for dollars.” In her May, 2016 column in Emergency Physician’s Monthly, Andrew noted, “A decade later, and my convictions have changed dramatically. Horror stories that colleagues related to me while I chaired ACEP’s Personal and Professional WellBeing Committee cannot all be isolated events. For example, physicians who self-referred to the PHP for management of stress and depression were reportedly railroaded into incredibly expensive and inconvenient out-of-state drug and alcohol treatment programs, even when there was no coexisting drug or alcohol problem.”

Dr. Andrew is not the only one voicing concerns about PHPs. In “Physician Health Programs: More harm than good?” (Medscape, Aug. 19, 2015), Pauline Anderson wrote about a several problems that have surfaced. In North Carolina, the state audited the PHPs after complaints that they were mandating physicians to lengthy and expensive inpatient programs. The complaints asserted that the physicians had no recourse and were not able to see their records. “The state auditor’s report found no abuse by North Carolina’s PHP. However, there was a caveat – the report determined that abuse could occur and potentially go undetected.

“It also found that the North Carolina PHP created the appearance of conflicts of interest by allowing the centers to provide both patient evaluation and treatments and that procedures did not ensure that physicians receive quality evaluations and treatment because the PHP had no documented criteria for selecting treatment centers and did not adequately monitor them.”

Finally, in a Florida Fox4News story, “Are FL doctors and nurses being sent to rehab unnecessarily? Accusations: Overdiagnosing; overcharging” (Nov. 16, 2017), reporters Katie Lagrone and Matthew Apthorp wrote about financial incentives for evaluators to refer doctors to inpatient substance abuse facilities.

Dr. Dinah Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)
Dr. Dinah Miller
“Medical professionals who enter the programs must pay for all treatment out-of-pocket, which could add up to thousands of dollars each year. There are also no standards on how much treatment can cost.”

The American Psychiatric Association has made it a priority to address physician burnout and mental health. Richard F. Summers, MD, APA Trustee-at-Large noted: “State PHPs are an essential resource for physicians, but there is a tremendous diversity in quality and approach. It is critical that these programs include attention to mental health problems as well as addiction, and that they support individual physicians’ treatment and journey toward well-being. They need to be accessible, private, and high quality, and they should be staffed by excellent psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.”

PHPs provide a much-needed and wanted service. But if the goal is to provide mental health and substance abuse services to physicians who are struggling – to prevent physicians from burning out, leaving medicine, and dying of suicide – then any whiff of corruption and any fear of professional repercussions become a reason not to use these services. If they are to be helpful, physicians must feel safe using them.

Dr. Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

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