Background and objectives: State medical licensing boards are responsible for evaluating physician impairment. Given the stigma generated by mental health issues among physicians and in the medical training culture, we were interested in whether states asked about mental and physical health conditions differently and whether questions focused on current impairment.
Methods: Two authors reviewed physician medical licensing applications for US physicians seeking first-time licensing in 2013 in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Questions about physical and mental health, as well as substance abuse, were identified and coded as to whether or not they asked about diagnosis and/or treatment or limited the questions to conditions causing physician impairment.
Results: Forty-three (84%) states asked questions about mental health conditions, 43 (84%) about physical health conditions, and 47 (92%) about substance use. States were more likely to ask for history of treatment and prior hospitalization for mental health and substance use, compared with physical health disorders. Among states asking about mental health, just 23 (53%) limited all questions to disorders causing functional impairment and just 6 (14%) limited to current problems.
Conclusions: While most state medical licensing boards ask about mental health conditions or treatment, only half limited queries to disorders causing impairment. Differences in how state licensing boards assess mental health raise important ethical and legal questions about assessing physician ability to practice and may discourage treatment for physicians who might otherwise benefit from appropriate care.