Anesthesiologists with substance use disorders: a 5-year outcome study from 16 state physician health programs

Anesth Analg. 2009 Sep;109(3):891-6. doi: 10.1213/ane.0b013e3181adc39d.


Background: Anesthesiologists have a higher rate of substance use disorders than other physicians, and their prognoses and advisability to return to anesthesiology practice after treatment remain controversial. Over the past 25 yr, physician health programs (PHPs), created under authority of state medical regulatory boards, have become primary resources for management and monitoring of physicians with substance abuse and other mental health disorders.

Methods: We conducted a 5-yr, longitudinal, cohort study involving 904 physicians consecutively admitted to 1 of 16 state PHPs between 1995 and 2001. This report analyzed a subset of the data involving the 102 anesthesiologists among the subjects and compared them with other physicians. The main outcome measures included relapse (defined as any unauthorized addictive substance use, including alcohol), return to anesthesiology practice, disciplinary actions, physician death, and patient harm.

Results: Anesthesiologists were significantly less likely to enroll in a PHP because of alcohol abuse (odds ratio [OR] 0.4 [confidence interval {CI}: 0.2-0.6], P < 0.001) and much more likely to enroll because of opioid abuse (OR 2.8 [CI: 1.7-4.4], P < 0.001). Anesthesiologists had a higher rate of IV drug use, 41% vs 10% (OR 6.3 [CI: 3.8-10.7], P < 0.001). During similar periods of monitoring, anesthesiologists received more drug tests, 101 vs 82 (mean difference = 19 [CI: 3-35], P = 0.02); however, anesthesiologists were less likely to fail at least one drug test during monitoring, 11% vs 23% (OR 0.4 [CI: 0.2-0.9], P = 0.02). There was no statistical difference among rates of program completion, disciplinary actions, return to practice, or deaths, and there was no report of significant patient harm from relapse in any record.

Conclusions: Anesthesiologists in our sample treated and monitored for substance disorders under supervision of PHPs had excellent outcomes similar to other physicians, with no higher mortality, relapse rate, or disciplinary rate and no evidence in their records of patient harm. It is postulated that differences of study design account for contradictory conclusions from other reports.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anesthesiology / standards*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Odds Ratio
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Substance-Related Disorders / rehabilitation*
  • Time Factors
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Workforce