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Mental Health Center

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Many Doctors Don't Report Incompetent Colleagues

Survey Shows One-Third Don't Blow Whistle on Peers Who Are Impaired or Incompetent
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

July 13, 2010 -- One-third of doctors who knew of peers who were incompetent or impaired, such as from alcohol or drug use, said they did not turn them in, according to a new survey.

''I was expecting the number who said they reported to be higher," says researcher Catherine M. DesRoches, DrPH, assistant professor of medicine at the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston.

She and her colleagues evaluated responses from 1,891 doctors in a variety of specialties. "We had 17% of physicians who had direct knowledge of a colleague in their practice or hospital whom they believed was impaired or incompetent. About two-thirds of those did report that physician, but we still had about a third that did not report."

More than one-third did not completely agree that doctors should report all instances of impaired or incompetent physicians, they also found.

While some may argue that the majority do turn in incompetent or impaired doctors, DesRoches says the percent must be higher. "If you are the patient, you would want all the impaired or incompetent physicians to be reported."

The study results are in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Impaired Physicians Survey: A Closer Look

DesRoches and her colleagues sent surveys to 2,938 doctors practicing in the U.S. in 2009 in a variety of areas: anesthesiology, cardiology, family practice, general surgery, internal medicine, pediatrics, and psychiatry.

In all, nearly 65%, or 1,891 doctors, responded.

Updating a 2004 questionnaire on the same topic, DesRoches' team asked respondents to the new survey to rate the extent to which they agreed with statements such as "Physicians should report all instances of significantly impaired or incompetent colleagues to their professional society, hospital, clinic, and/or other relevant authorities."

Among the results:

  • 64% agreed with the professional commitment to report doctors who are significantly impaired or otherwise incompetent to practice medicine.
  • 69% reported being prepared to deal effectively with impaired colleagues in their practice.
  • 64% reported being prepared to deal with incompetent colleagues.
  • 17% said they had direct knowledge of a peer incompetent to practice in their hospital, group, or practice.
  • 67% of this 17% reported the colleague to relevant authorities.

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