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Is My Doctor High?

An article reprinted in the Albuquerque Journal asks the loaded question, “Should Doctors be Drug Tested?”

The question comes from the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the answer from some physicians is, “Yes, they should.”

The reason, given by two Johns Hopkins physicians along with patient safety experts is that the inconvenience to the doctor is far outweighed by preventing the harm that could come if a doctor is operating or otherwise treating patients while impaired. Doing so would almost certainly increase the error rate, a constant concern in the medical community.

Substance abuse is well known in the medical community, although it doesn’t usually come to the attention of outsiders, including patients. Access to prescription narcotics and other drugs is relatively easy for physicians, and alcohol abuse is also prevalent. Right now, these matters are handled behind closed doors. A doctor can complete treatment, agree to monitoring, and if they pass all this, keep their medical license intact. But these interventions only come into play after a doctor has been exposed as an addict or abuser. Testing might allow us to proactively find this group of professionals before they have a chance to cause harm to patients.

That’s the argument being made: that drug testing might increase patient safety and this, all by itself, is reason enough to do it.

Of course, being highly trained, a doctor may be able to fool the testing procedure and escape notice for awhile, but random, unannounced testing is very hard to beat in the long run.

Then there’s the question of what to do if a doctor test’s positive. We do not want to waste all the years of training or prosecute someone without giving them a chance to change their ways. Is immediate suspension or loss of license the right way to go, or should they be allowed to attend treatment and have further testing? These aren’t easy questions, but patient care has to be the primary focus in the end – we can’t ignore the situation and allow impaired doctors to keep practicing.

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