Would You Report an Impaired Physician? Many Doctors Won't

Shelly Reese


April 11, 2018

In This Article

Physicians Are Reluctant to Report Their Peers

On the surface, physicians seem to be in agreement: Four out of five say they would report an impaired colleague, according to Medscape's most recent ethics survey.[1]

But listen a little harder, and you'll hear discordant undertones that include a lot of questions and caveats. In fact, research shows although most doctors say they'd report an impaired colleague, when confronted with the situation, many fail to do so.

"There are complicated reasons why people don't report," says Catherine DesRoches, DrPH, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. In a 2010 survey published in JAMA, Dr DesRoches and her colleagues found that one third of physicians who encountered an impaired physician in their group or hospital did not report them.[2]

That reticence to report comes even as patient safety advocates are calling for random drug screening for physicians. It also defies ethical guidance from the American Medical Association that exhorts physicians to "intervene in a timely manner to ensure that impaired colleagues cease practicing and receive appropriate assistance from a physician health program" and to "report impaired colleagues in keeping with ethics guidance and applicable law."[3]

Why are so many physicians reluctant to report their impaired peers? It's complicated by the fact that many physicians feel that they are taking the positive and more helpful course of action by not reporting.

Why Doctors Don't Report Colleagues

More than 10% of physicians will develop an addictive disorder over the course of their career, and approximately one third will have a condition that could impact their ability to practice with reasonable skill and safety at some point in their career, according to the Federation of State Physician Health Programs.[4]

Given those high percentages, there's a high probability that many physicians at some point in their careers will encounter a colleague whose performance is at some point impaired by drugs, alcohol, or illness. Would they report them? Nearly 4 out of 5 (78%) of the 7500 physicians responding to Medscape's most recent ethics report say they would. Another 18% aren't so sure. A small minority (4%) say they would not.


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