Physician Suicide and Organizational Justice: The Role of Hopelessness, Helplessness and Defeat

Physician Suicide and Organizational Justice: The Role of Hopelessness, Helplessness and Defeat

Michael Langan, M.D.

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They can be a terror to your mind and show you how to hold your tongue
They got mystery written all over their forehead
They kill babies in the crib and say only the good die young
They don’t believe in mercy
Judgement on them is something that you’ll never see
They can exalt you up or bring you down main route
Turn you into anything that they want you to be–Bob Dylan, Foot of Pride

In  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s  The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway observes that “the loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly”      In 1896 Émile Durkheim described “melancholy suicide” as being “connected with a general state of extreme depression and exaggerated sadness, causing the patient no longer to realize sanely the bonds which connect him with people and things about him. Pleasures no longer attract.”     Heightened perceptions of defeat and entrapment are known to be powerful predictors of suicide. According to the “Cry of Pain” model people are particularly prone to suicide when life  experiences are interpreted as signaling defeat, defined as a sense of a “failed struggle.” Unable to find some sort of resolution to a defeating situation, a sense of entrapment proliferates and the perception of no way out provides the central impetus for ending one’s life.

Although no reliable statistics yet exist, anecdotal reports suggest a marked rise in physician suicide in recent years. From the reports I am receiving it is a lot more than the oft cited “medical school class” of 400 per year.

This necessitates an evaluation of predisposing risk factors such as substance abuse and depression, but also requires a critical examination of what external forces may be involved.  What acute and cumulative situational and psychosocial factors are involved in the descent from suicidal ideation to planning to completion?   What makes suicide a potential option for doctors and what acute events precipitate and trigger the final act?

Depression and Substance Abuse no Different from General Population

The prevalence of depression in physicians is close to that of the general population1,2 and, if one looks critically at the evidence based literature, substance abuse in medical professionals approximates that of the general population.  Controlled studies using DSM diagnostic criteria indicate that physicians have the same rates (8-14%) of substance abuse and dependence as the general population,3 and slightly lower rates compared to other occupations.4,5  Epidemiological surveys reveal the same. Hughes, et al.6 reported a lifetime prevalence of drug or alcohol abuse or dependence in physicians of 7.9%, markedly less than the 14.6% prevalence reported in the general population by Kessler.7

Job Stress and Untreated Mental Illness Risk Factors

Job stress coupled with inadequate treatment for mental illness may be factors contributing to physician suicide according to one recent study. Using data from the National Violent Death Reporting System, Gold, Sen, & Schwenk, 2013 8 compared 203 physicians who had committed suicide to more than 31,000 non-physicians and found that having a known mental health disorder or a job problem that contributed to the suicide significantly predicted being a physician.

Physicians were 3.12 times more likely to have a job problem as a contributing factor. In addition, toxicology testing showed low rates of medication treatment.  The authors concluded that inadequate treatment and increased problems related to job stress are potentially modifiable risk factors to reduce suicidal death among physicians. They also warned that the database used likely underestimated physician suicides because of “underreporting and even deliberate miscoding because of the stigma attached.”8

Few studies have evaluated the psychosocial stressors surrounding physician suicide but there is no reason to believe they are any different from the rest of the population. Although the triggering life events and specific stressors may vary outside, the inner psyche and undercurrent of thoughts and feelings should remains the same.   Perhaps the same drivers of suicide identified in other populations are contributing to physician suicide.

Perceived Helplessness, Hopelessness, Bullying and Defeat

Perceived helplessness is significantly associated with suicide as is9Hopelessness10,11  Bullying is known to be a predominant trigger for adolescent suicide12-14   One study found that adolescents in custody who were bullied were 9.22 times more likely to attempt suicide than those were not bullied.15

Heightened perceptions of defeat and entrapment are known to be powerful contributors to suicide.16,17

The “Cry of Pain” model 18,19 specifies that people are particularly prone to suicide when life experiences are interpreted as signaling defeat which is defined as a sense of “failed struggle” or loss of social position and resources.. The person is unable to identify an escape from or resolution to a defeating situation, a sense of entrapment proliferates with the perception of no way out, and this provides the central impetus for ending ones life. There is a helplessness and hopelessness that precipitates the descent from ideation, to planning, and then to finality.

Organizational Justice Important Protective Factor

In a study on Italian and Swedish female physicians, degrading experiences and harassment at work were found to be the most powerful independent variables contributing to suicidal thoughts.20Degrading work experiences harassment, and lack of control over working conditions were found to be associated with suicidal thoughts among Italian and Swedish male university physicians.21

Evidence exists for the role of rescue factors (i.e. social support) as buffers against suicide in the face of varying degrees of life stress.22,23 The study of female physicians revealed meetings to discuss stressful work experiences as a potential protective factor, 20 and support at work when difficulties arose appeared to be a protective factor for the male physicians.21   In line with this, studies of Finnish physicians found that control over one’s work and organizational justice were the most important determinants of work-related wellbeing.24,25 Organizational justice has been identified as a psychosocial predictor of health and wellbeing. 26 27  Low organizational justice has been identified as a notable risk factor for psychological distress and depression.28,29

Historical Precedent-the Suicides at Ridgeview

Could these factors be playing a role in physician suicide?  They evidently did at the Ridgeview Institute, a drug and alcohol treatment program for impaired physicians in Metropolitan Atlanta created by G. Douglas Talbott.

Talbott helped organize and served as past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) and was a formative figure in the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) Impaired Physician Program. He has owned and directed a number of treatment facilities for impaired professionals, most recently the Talbott Recovery Campus in Atlanta, one of the preferred referrals for physicians ordered into evaluation and treatment by licensing boards.

After creating the DeKalb County Impaired Physicians Committee for the Medical Association of Georgia, Talbott founded the Georgia Disabled Doctors Program in 1975 in part because “traditional one-month treatment programs are inadequate for disabled doctors.” According to Talbott, rehabilitation programs that evaluate and treat the rest of the population for substance abuse issues are incapable of doing so in doctors as they are unlike others. He bases this uniqueness on “incredibly high denial”, and what he calls the “four MDs,” “M-Deity”, “Massive Denial” “Militant Defensiveness”, and “More Drugs.”30

Contingency Management = Extortion Using Medical License

According to Talbott, “impaired doctors must first acknowledge their addiction and overcome their ‘terminal uniqueness’ before they can deal with a drug or alcohol problem.” “Terminal uniqueness “ is a phrase Talbott uses to describe doctors’ tendency to think they can heal themselves. “M-Deity” refers to doctors “being trained to think they’re God,”31 an unfounded generalization considering the vast diversity of individuals that make up our profession. This attitude, according to some critics, stems from the personal histories of the treatment staff, including Talbott, who are recovering alcoholics and addicts themselves. One such critic was Assistant Surgeon General under C. Everett Koop John C. Duffy who said that Ridgeview suffered from a “boot-camp mentality” toward physicians under their care and “assume every physician suffering from substance abuse is the same lying, stealing, cheating, manipulating individual they were when they had the illness. Certainly some physicians are manipulative, but it’s naïve to label all physicians with these problems.”32

American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) President (1981-1983) LeClair Bissell was also highly critical of Talbott’s approach. Bissell, co-author of the first textbook of ethics for addiction professionals 33 when asked if there was any justification to the claim that doctors are sicker than other people and more vulnerable to addiction replied:

“Well, based on my treatment experience, I think they are less sick and much easier to treat than many other groups. I think one reason for that is that in order to become a physician…one has to have jumped over a great many hurdles. One must pass the exams, survive the screening tests and the interviews, be able to organize oneself well enough to do examinations and so on, and be observed by a good many colleagues along the way. Therefore I think the more grossly psychotic, or sicker, are frequently screened out along the way. The ones we get in treatment are usually people who are less brain-damaged, are still quite capable of learning, are reasonably bright. Not only that, but they are quite well motivated in most cases to hang on to their licenses, the threat of the loss of which is frequently what puts them in treatment in the first place. So are they hard to treat? No! Are they easy patients? Yes! Are they more likely to be addicted than other groups? We don’t know.”34

I’m not much for the bullying that goes along with some of these programs,” Bissell commented to theAtlanta Journal and Constitution in 1987.31

The Constitution did a series of reports after five inpatients committed suicide during a four-year period at Ridgeview.35  In addition there were at least 20 more who had killed themselves over the preceding 12 years after leaving the treatment center.32

Bissell, the recipient of the 1997 Elizabeth Blackwell Award for outstanding contributions to the cause of women and medicine remarked: “When you’ve got them by the license, that’s pretty strong leverage. You shouldn’t have to pound on them so much. You could be asking for trouble.” 31

According to Bissell: “There’s a lot of debate in the field over whether treatment imposed by threats is worthwhile…To a large degree a person has to seek the treatment on his own accord before it will work for him.”31

A jury awarded $1.3 million to the widow of one of the deceased physicians against Ridgeview,36 and other lawsuits initiated on behalf of suicides were settled out of court.35

The Constitution reported that doctors entered the program under threats of loss of licensure “even when they would prefer treatment that is cheaper and closer to home.” 37

The paper also noted that Ridgeview “enjoys unparalleled connections with many local and state medical societies that work with troubled doctors,” “licensing boards often seek recommendations from such groups in devising an approved treatment plan,” and those in charge are often “physicians who themselves have successfully completed Ridgeview’s program.”37

The cost of a 28-day program for nonprofessionals at Ridgeview in 1987 was $10,000 while the cost was “higher for those going through impaired-health professionals program,” which lasted months rather than 28 days.32

In 1997 William L. White interviewed Bissell whom he called “one of the pioneers in the treatment of impaired professionals.” The interview was not published until after hear death in 2008 per her request.   Noting her book Alcoholism in the Professions 38 “remains one of the classics in the field”, White asked her when those in the field began to see physicians and other professionals as a special treatment population. She replied:

“When they started making money in alcoholism. As soon as insurance started covering treatment, suddenly you heard that residential treatment was necessary for almost everybody. And since alcoholic docs had tons of money compared to the rest of the public, they not only needed residential treatment, they needed residential treatment in a special treatment facility for many months as opposed to the shorter periods of time that other people needed.”39


Talbott claimed a “92.3 percent recovery rate, according to information compiled from a five-year follow-up survey based on complete abstinence and other treatment.”40

“There is nothing special about a doctor’s alcoholism,” said Bissel

“”These special facilities will tell you that they come up with really wonderful recovery rates. They do. And the reason they do is that any time you can grab a professional person by the license and compel him or her into treatment and force them to cooperate with that treatment and then monitor them for years, you’ll get good outcomes—in the high 80s or low 90s in recovery rates—no matter what else you do.”39

“The ones I think are really the best ones were not specialized. There were other well-known specialty clinics that claimed all the docs they treated got well, which is sheer rot. They harmed a great many people, keeping them for long, unnecessary treatments and seeing to it that they hit their financial bottom for sure: kids being yanked out of college, being forced to sell homes to pay for treatment, and otherwise being blackmailed on the grounds that your husband has a fatal disease. It’s ugly.”39

Stanton Peele’s “In the Belly of the American Society of Addiction Medicine Beast” describes the coercion, bullying, threats and indoctrination that are standard operating procedure in Talbott’s facilities.41 Uncooperative patients, “and this covers a range of sins of commission or omission including offering one’s opinion about one’s treatment,” are “threatened with expulsion and with not being certified-or advocated for with their Boards.”41 The cornerstone of treatment is 12-step spiritual recovery. All new patients are indoctrinated into A.A. and coerced to confess they are addicts or alcoholics. Failure to participate in A.A. and 12-step spirituality means expulsion from the program with the anticipated result being loss of one’s medical license.

Fraud, Malpractice, False Diagnoses and False imprisonment

In May 1999 Talbott stepped down as president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) as a jury awarded Dr. Leonard Masters a judgment of $1.3 million in actual damages and an undisclosed sum in punitive damages for fraud, malpractice, and the novel claim of false imprisonment.42  The fraud finding required a finding that errors in the diagnosis were intentional. After being accused of excessive prescribing of narcotics to his chronic pain patients, Masters was told by the director of the Florida PHP that he could either surrender his medical license until the allegations were disproved or submit to a four-day evaluation. Masters agreed to the latter, thinking he would have an objective and fair evaluation, but was instead diagnosed as “alcohol dependent” and coerced into the Talbott recovery program. He was forced to stay in the program under threat of his medical license as staff would routinely threaten to report any doctor who questioned any aspect of their diagnosis or treatment to their state medical boards “as being an impaired physician, leaving necessary treatment against medical advice”42  which would mean the loss of his licensure.

However, Masters was not an alcoholic. According to his attorney, Eric. S. Block,  “No one ever accused him of having a problem with alcohol. Not his friends, not his wife, not his seven children, not his fellow doctors, not his employees, not his employers, No one.” 43   He was released 4 months later and forced to sign a five-year “continuing care” contract with the PHP, also under continued threat of his medical license. Talbott faced no professional repercussions and no changes in the treatment protocols were made. Talbott continued to present himself and ASAM as the most qualified advocate for the assessment and treatment of medical professionals for substance abuse and addiction up until his death last year.44

Same System Imposed on Doctors Today—Institutional Injustice Worse due to Laboratory Developed Tests. Fortified Scaffold and Tightened the Noose.

In almost all states today any physician referred for an assessment for substance abuse will be mandated to do so in a facility just like Ridgeview. There is no choice. There is one difference however.   When the Ridgeview suicides occurred the plethora of laboratory developed tests were not yet introduced.

A decade ago Dr. Gregory Skipper introduced the first laboratory developed test for forensic testing and used it on doctors in physician health programs.   These non-FDA approved tests of unknown validity presented a new unpredictable variable into the mix with a positive test necessitating another assessment at an out of state treatment facility—a “PHP-approved” assessment facility. The addition of this laboratory Russian Roulette renders the current system much worse than it was at the time of the Ridgeview suicides.

And if a positive test occurs there are no safeguards protecting the donor. LDTs are unregulated by the FDA. There is no oversight and no one to file a complaint with.

In addition state PHPs have no oversight or regulation.  They police themselves. Medical boards, departments of public health and medical societies provide no oversight. Accountability is absent.

Moreover they have apparently convinced law enforcement that when it comes to doctors it is a “parochial issue” best handled by the medical community. I have been hearing from doctors all over the country who have tried to report crimes to the local police, the state Attorney General and other law enforcement agencies only to be turned back over to the very perpetrators of the crimes. “He’s a sick doctor, we’ll take care of him.”

The “swift and certain consequences” imposed on those monitored in these programs is an effective means of silencing most.   The media has generally bought into the  exaggerated danger of the “impaired” and “disruptive” physician constructs created by these groups.  The media has in fact, intentionally or otherwise,  been complicit in spreading  the propaganda and misinformation put out by these groups to create moral panics associated with these false constructs and the bogus dangers they pose.   Reporting corruption and fraud to local newspapers and investigative reporters is largely futile.   This is not because these reports lack veracity or supporting evidence but because the reports are being made by doctors who have been accused of substance use or behavioral problems.  The mere label “impaired” or “disruptive” seems sufficient to disregard the claims of the accused.

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Urgent Need to Admit to the Problem

There has been an increase in physician suicide in the past decade.   By my estimate the numbers are going to be far higher than the oft-cited 400 per year. The speculation as to cause has been unenlightening and in fact frustrating.   Knowledge of anatomy, access to dangerous drugs, increased workload and even student loans have been proposed as contributing factors. Although there has been some tangential mention of physician health programs it has been indirect.

Direct and defined discussion is necessary and state PHPs need to be named as a possible contributor to suicide.  Admitting the possibility there is a problem is the first crucial step in defining and addressing the problem.    The 1980s historical precedent is correlated with physician suicide.  The current system is not only based on Ridgeview but has been fortified in scope and power.  The physician health movement has effectively removed due process from doctors while removing answerability and accountability from themselves.

And they have not only fortified the scaffold but widened it from substance abusing doctors to all doctors. “Potential impairment” and “relapse without use” were introduced without any meaningful resistance and they are now using a panoply of non-FDA approved laboratory developed tests of unknown validity to test for substances of abuse in a zero-tolerance abstinence based monitoring program.

With no regulatory oversight the stage is set not only for error but misuse as witch-pricking devices for punishment and control.  Doctors across the country are complaining of the very same abuses Leonard Masters did–false diagnoses, misdiagnosis, unneeded treatment and fraud.

In summary, any doctor who is referred to their state PHP today is required to have any assessment and treatment at a “PHP-approved” facility based on Ridgeview.  It is mandated.  There is no choice.  Coercion, control and abuse at Ridgeview was associated with multiple suicides in doctors in the 1980s.  

The use of non-FDA approved tests of unknown validity worsens the abuse and fits the “cry of pain” model of hopelessness, helplessness and despair.  Locus of control is  lost and organizational justice is absent.   The factors associated with suicide are loud and clear.  

Why is it so difficult to provoke further discussion and inspire critical thinking on this topic?   Examining, questioning and researching strategies for recognizing  (and undoing ) oppressive institutional structures should be recognized and supported by everyone.   Cognitive dissonance, apathy, ignorance (willful or otherwise), indifference and neutrality to issues concerning oppression and abuse only serves to reinforce oppression and abuse.   To be confronted or resolved these issues must be recognized and addressed and this is not going to happen until everyone is involved in it’s interrogation.

 How many more must die before this happens?

Why is the relationship between these programs and physician suicide still an elephant in the room?

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  42. Ursery S. $1.3M verdict coaxes a deal for doctor’s coerced rehab. Fulton County Daily Report.May 12, 1999b 1999.
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  44. Parker J. George Talbott’s Abuse of Dr. Leon Masters MD (http://medicalwhistleblowernetwork.jigsy.com/george-talbott-s-abuse-of-leon-masters ).Medical Whistelblower Advocacy Network.

 

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Please donate to this effort below.  Your contribution can and will make a difference.  https://www.gofundme.com/PHPReform

Regulatory capture and the critical need for Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Investigation of Medical Licensing Boards

Disrupted Physician

But in this Court, what Diff’rence does appear!
For every one’s both Judge and Jury here;
Nay, and what’s worse, an Executioner.

William Congreve, The Double-dealer

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Please donate to this effort below.  Your contribution can and will make a difference.  https://www.gofundme.com/PHPReform

Regulatory capture is a form of government failure that occurs when a regulatory agency created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating and introduced in an article by George J. Stigler in 1971 entitled The Theory of Economic Regulation. The main idea of the article can be summarized in Stigler’s (1971: 3) affirmation that:

“…as a rule, regulation is acquired by the industry and is designed and operated primarily for its benefits.”

The basic hypothesis of Stigler is that an industry may use—or rather abuse—the coercive public power of the State…

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Request Medical School Administrators Question PHP Authority to Prevent Future Medical Profession Brain Drain

Disrupted Physician

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Physician Health Programs (PHPs) are now targeting medical students and the stories I am hearing are heartbreaking.   Medical students who do not fit the diagnostic criteria for psychological problems or Substance Use Disorder (SUD) are being diagnosed with psychological problems and SUD in a closed system absent the usual safeguards of transparency, regulation and oversight.  No accountability exists.  None.   PHPs and their affiliated drug and alcohol testing labs and “approved” assessment and treatment centers have created a culture of impunity and immunity. The “tone at the top” is unethical and unjust and by targeting medical students this illegitimate authority is now snuffing out many brilliant and talented doctors before they even become doctors. I have heard from many medical students who are not able to afford the unneeded treatment being mandated by medical schools for issues that are resolved, trivial and even non-existent as described below.  Continued deference to this authority could be…

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During this Christmas week and Holiday Season– please consider making a contribution to a worthwhile cause!

Please donate here:  https://www.gofundme.com/PHPReform

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Michael, thank you for your years of effort – you have made a huge difference to hundreds (thousands?) of us individually, and have changed the system. I wish I had 45K to fund you. I discovered the Disrupted Physician in April and have read every post and link. It has given me hope and strength as I work to recover and rebuild my life. -Kathryn Neraas M.D.

Michael, I have witnessed your efforts for 2-3 years now and I completely understand what you’re trying to do. Your work is so important. I have been doing similar work and wish I could donate enough to keep you able to do this as long as it takes until this is resolved completely. Talking to brick walls is expensive. Something needs to give.–Tom Gleason


With a team of criminals and incompetents running the show unconscionable misconduct inevitably ensues.  The malfeasance and unprofessionalism in state physician health programs (PHPs) and medical boards is staggering.  One can only hope that, in time, a wiser system will emerge.  I have been told the audit of the Robert Harvey’s  sham  “physician health and compliance unit”  is going to proceed.  This is good news and what the state auditor is going to find ( barring outside interference from those fattening and battening off this racket) is that incorrigible corruption has remained unchecked for decades.   The dissembling reach of the odious individuals is tremendous.    They have deliberately denied victims justice and permitted the physician health predators to roam free among the vulnerable for decades.   The Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine needs a drastic  rejiggering as do many others.  The corruption needs to be addressed,   the cognitive dissonance needs to end and the heinous individuals responsible need to be held accountable for their misdeeds.   We have made significant gains in exposing this corruption over the past few years and the  I am counting on you to please contribute whatever you can.  I need to raise some immediate funds (a few thousand dollars ) to meet a December 31st deadline that is going to create a significant setback if I do not do so.  So please get this out and help.

 

  https://www.gofundme.com/PHPReform

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Physician health programs: ‘Diagnosing for dollars’?

Screen Shot 2017-10-02 at 2.46.00 AM“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.”

via Physician health programs: ‘Diagnosing for dollars’?

Physician health programs: ‘Diagnosing for dollars’?

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Source:  Clinical Psychiatry News

Please comment.

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).

The “PHP-Approved” Assessment and Treatment Center Gravy Train

Screen Shot 2017-11-27 at 4.51.59 AMvia The “PHP-Approved” Assessment and Treatment Center Gravy Train

List of “PHP-Approved” assessment and treatment centers

The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB)  House of Delegates adopted an updated Policy on Physician Impairment at their 2011 annual meeting distinguishing “impairment” and “illness” stating that “..Regulatory Agencies should recognize the PHP [physician health programs] as their expert in all matters relating to licensed professionals with “potentially impairing illness.”  In 2011 The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)  issued a Public Policy Statement on coordination between physician health programs (PHPs), medical boards and treatment providers recommending  only “PHP approved” treatment centers be used in the assessment and treatment of doctors.    The Federation of State Physician Health Programs (FSPHP)  is an appendage of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)  and the FSPHP cultivated a relationship with the  Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) in the mid 1990s by offering  “treatment” rather than”punishment” and the influence on regulatory medicine can be historically and systematically tracked  in the  Journal of Medical Regulation and similar publications.  This group gained a seat at the table by  by touting grandiose success rates in treating “addicted doctors.” The  Washington  PHP claimed a success rate of  95.4%,  Tennessee   93% and Alabama  90%.   These breathtaking success rates were attributed to specialized treatment centers for doctors such as Ridgeview where they required inpatient stays lasting three times longer than average folks; cash-on-the-barrel and at three times the cost mind you. The truth is the majority of doctors referred for assessments do not meet the diagnostic criteria for problems they are receiving treatment.  It is unneeded. Very few are “addicts.”  Most of those being referred to these programs are like Leonard Masters who was accused of overprescribing and was told by the director of the Florida PHP he could either relinquish his license or have an evaluation. Masters chose the evaluation thinking he would be returning in 4-days.  but was diagnosed as an alcoholic and spent 4-months.  The man didn’t even have a drinking problem!   He successfully sued G. Douglas Talbott and the facility for false imprisonment, malpractice and fraud.

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The “PHP-Approved” Assessment and Treatment Center Gravy Train

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Related:  Monopolies, Self-Referral and Shell Games: The Need for Antitrust Investigation of Physician Health Programs and their “PHP-Approved” Assessment and Treatment Centers

Regulatory capture and the critical need for Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Investigation of Medical Licensing Boards

The Dictatorship of the Federation of State Physician Health Programs (FSPHP)


The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB)  House of Delegates adopted an updated Policy on Physician Impairment at their 2011 annual meeting distinguishing “impairment” and “illness”  stating that Regulatory Agencies should recognize the PHP as their expert in all matters relating to licensed professionals with “potentially impairing illness.”  In 2011 The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM)  issued a Public Policy Statement on coordination between physician health programs (PHPs), medical boards and treatment providers recommending  only “PHP approved” treatment centers be used in the assessment and treatment of doctors.   The Federation of State Physician Health Programs (FSPHP)  is an appendage of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) that cultivated a relationship with the  Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) by offering  “treatment” rather than”punishment and their influence on regulatory medicine can be historically tracked  in the  Journal of Medical Regulation and similar  publications when they began touting grandiose success rates in treating “addicted doctors.” The  Washington  PHP claimed a success rate of  95.4%,  Tennessee   93% and Alabama  90%.   These breathtaking success rates were attributed to specialized treatment centers for doctors such as Ridgeview where they required inpatient stays lasting three times longer than average folks; cash-on-the-barrel and at three times the cost mind you. The truth is the majority of doctors referred for assessments do not meet the diagnostic criteria for problems they are receiving treatment.  It is unneeded. Very few are “addicts.”  Most of those being referred to these programs are like Leonard Masters who was accused of overprescribing and was told by the director of the Florida PHP he could either relinquish his license or have an evaluation. Masters chose the evaluation thinking he would be returning in 4-days.  but was diagnosed as an alcoholic and spent 4-months.  The man didn’t even have a drinking problem!   He successfully sued G. Douglas Talbott and the facility for false imprisonment, malpractice and fraud.

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What objective criteria are used in selecting these “PHP-approved” assessment and treatment centers?    According to a  Performance Audit of the North Carolina Physicians Health Program done by State Auditor Beth A. Wood that’s a good question.

The North Carolina State  Audit specifically noted the predominant use of these out-of-state treatment centers.   In addition to “creating an undue burden on” those being evaluated the audit states that:

 “Program procedures did not ensure that physicians received quality evaluations and treatment because the Program had no documented criteria for selecting treatment centers and did not adequately monitor them”

In fact the audit found no documented policy for selecting treatment centers.  The very organizations demanding documentation of policy for approval and charged with approving the treatment centers could not even give a comprehensible, plausible or even simple explanation for what any of  these things even mean.    

When the NC PHP was asked to define these characteristics they explained that they learned  of “new treatment centers through professional networks and other informal sources” and used the “treatment centers’ reputation as a basis for establishing a referral relationship.”      Staff credentials, quality of care, treatment methods and modalities, patient choice, follow-up data, outcomes and other objective information apparently took a back-seat to what appears to be ill-defined and subjective word-on-the-street.

None of these facilities take insurance.  It is all out-of-pocket with the average cost for a 4-day assessment $5K and another  $80-120K for at least three months of inpatient treatment   Reports of “diagnosis rigging” and unneeded treatment are rampant and if  my survey is an accurate reflection of what is occurring more than 90% of those treated do not even meet the diagnostic criteria for what they are being treated for.

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This  “failure to use FSPHP  recommended criteria to select treatment centers,” the Audit concluded “could cause the Program to enter into referral arrangements with service providers that do not meet quality standards”

Ironically the  NC PHP failed to follow guidelines they themselves introduced and demanded be followed but could produce no documented criteria they existed.    They could not even provide plausible criteria.   Professional networks, reputation and other informal sources are fine for some choices.  That’s how I picked out my first skateboard.     These resources can play in important role in choosing a shirt, new sneakers or even a car but they do not constitute selection criteria for an assessment in which the consequences and recommendations made for the person being assessed are significant, potentially life-altering and possibly permanent!

And to top it off the  Medial Director of the North Carolina PHP,  Dr. Warren Pendergast, was the  President of the FSPHP at the time of the audit.  PHPs are not clinical providers but monitoring agencies.  They meet with, assess and refer doctors for evaluations and and monitor doctors through drug and alcohol testing and the monthly reports of others.     As such the PHP is tasked with two jobs-referring doctors for evaluation and then monitoring them after they have been evaluated.  The fact that they could not produce the facts and reasoning of the very basis for which they exist is incomprehensible.   The President of the FSPHP being unable to define the selection criteria for approved and mandated facilities is like Anthony Bourdain being unable to explain the ingredients of an omelette.

To summarize, doctors in North Carolina were being forced by the PHP  to have evaluations at “PHP-approved” assessment and treatment centers but the PHP was unable to explain anything substantive in defining any of it.  Why?  Because no qualitative objective selection criteria exist and that is the case in every state. This is especially concerning when it is realized that these evaluations are limited to facilities and people  tied financially and ideologically to the groups and individuals who are mandating the referral.

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