should physicians undergo drug alcohol testing

One of the realities of the modern working world to which employees are now fully accustomed is alcohol and drug testing. Specifically, most new hires anticipate that they must pass a drug test, while many veteran employees understand that their employment is contingent upon the ability to pass random substance abuse screenings.

One class of employee that has not traditionally been subject to any kind of drug or alcohol testing whatsoever is physicians. This is particularly curious when you consider that the undue amount of stress faced by most physicians — medical school, residency, busy practice schedules, etc. — has been shown to result in anxiety, depression and feelings of extreme mental fatigue, all known precursors to substance abuse.

Interestingly enough, a group of researchers at Johns Hopkins University recently published a commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association calling for drug and alcohol testing for all physicians, saying it would have multiple benefits, the most important of which is improved patient safety.

“Patients and their family members have a right to be protected from impaired physicians,” reads the commentary. “In other high-risk industries, this right is supported by regulations and surveillance. Shouldn’t medicine be the same? A robust system to identify impaired physicians may enhance the professionalism that peer review seeks to protect.”

The Johns Hopkins researchers suggested that hospitals across the U.S. should strongly consider introducing the following elements as part of a comprehensive physician substance abuse policy:

  • Mandatory drug screenings/physical examinations for all potential physician hires.
  • Random drug screening programs much like those found in other major industries in the U.S.
  • Policies in which all physicians involved in so-called sentinel events — meaning those events resulting in the serious bodily harm or death of a patient — are subjected to drug testing.

According to the researchers, those physicians found to have substance abuse issues could see their hospital privileges revoked temporarily and the matter reported to the state licensing board. However, once the necessary treatment was secured, they argue that the physician could again be granted privileges subject to the passing of routine drug tests.

What are your thoughts on the drug testing of physicians? Is it long overdue or an unnecessary intrusion?

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Source: Johns Hopkins Medicine, “All hospitals should require drug, alcohol tests for physicians,” May 7, 2013

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