Introduction: Physicians with substance use disorders receive care that is qualitatively different from and reputedly more effective than that offered to the general population, yet there has been no national study of this distinctive approach. To learn more about the national system of Physician Health Programs (PHPs) that manage the care of addicted physicians, we surveyed all 49 state PHP medical directors (86% responded) to characterize their treatment, support, and monitoring regimens.
Results: PHPs do not provide substance abuse treatment. Under authority from state licensing boards, state laws, and contractual agreements, they promote early detection, assessment, evaluation, and referral to abstinence-oriented (usually) residential treatment for 60 to 90 days. This is followed by 12-step-oriented outpatient treatment. Physicians then receive randomly scheduled urine monitoring, with status reports issued to employers, insurers, and state licensing boards for (usually) 5 or more years. Outcomes are very positive, with only 22% of physicians testing positive at any time during the 5 years and 71% still licensed and employed at the 5-year point.
Conclusion: Addicted physicians receive an intensity, duration, and quality of care that is rarely available in most standard addiction treatments: (a) intensive and prolonged residential and outpatient treatment, (b) 5 years of extended support and monitoring with significant consequences, and (c) involvement of family, colleagues, and employers in support and monitoring. Although not available to the general public now, several aspects of this continuing care model could be adapted and used for the general population.