Medical Licensing Board & Mental Health
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Can State Medical Licensing Board Practices Affect The Mental Health of Physicians?

Medical Defense

Almost no one who has had to face and deal with mental health issues wants to share that information, especially with an employer or with a professional licensing board. However, state medical licensing boards ask a great many intimate questions about a doctor’s personal life. Understandably, medical licensing boards want to be absolutely certain that convicted felons, substance abusers, and persons with chronic and severe mental disorders are not practicing medicine.

However, when medical licensing boards focus too much of their attention on the mental health of physicians, those boards in effect stigmatize mental illness and intimidate physicians, which in some cases may keep those physicians from seeking and obtaining the help they need. That’s the conclusion of researchers at the University of Michigan, who published their findings in the June 2017 Family Medicine journal.

Researchers examined how medical licensing boards in all fifty states and the District of Columbia evaluate mental illnesses compared to physical illnesses or substance abuse issues. The researchers discovered that state medical licensing boards ask physicians many more intrusive questions about their mental health than about physical conditions – such as vision problems or arthritis – that could directly impair a physician’s abilities. Questions about physical health were mostly generous and vague, while inquiries regarding mental health and substance abuse were generally precise, harsh, and abrasive.

Katherine J. Gold, M.D., an assistant professor with the University of Michigan’s Department of Family Medicine, led the researchers. She says, “The differences were really quite striking. States were significantly more likely to ask if physicians had been diagnosed, treated or hospitalized for mental health or substance abuse versus for physical health disorders, often asking about many years in the past.”

WHERE CAN CONCERNED DOCTORS TURN?

If you are a healthcare professional in Texas with any concerns regarding previous mental health issues or your standing with the Texas Medical Board or the Texas Board of Nursing, arrange to speak with an experienced Dallas medical license defense attorney who can provide sound legal advice, insights, and aggressive representation – if it’s needed – to defend your career and your professional license.

While state medical licensing boards ask a great many questions about a doctor’s mental health, their interrogations haven’t actually been very helpful in identifying physicians with real mental impairments that might actually endanger patients.

Rather than focusing on which doctors might actually need help, according to Dr. Gold, the licensing boards ask broad questions that are basically invasions of privacy. In some cases, medical boards have seemed more interested in simply exercising their power and intimidating doctors rather than identifying doctors who need help and trying to provide it.

Here’s the precise problem and a basic example: A doctor might not seek counseling or treatment for depression because if a medical licensing board subsequently asks, “Have you sought counseling or treatment for depression?” and the answer is yes, that doctor’s professional license could be put at risk. The University of Michigan researchers also determined that many of the questions asked by state medical licensing boards cannot be asked legally under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

IS THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION TAKING ANY ACTION?

With mounting concerns regarding burnout, depression, and suicide among our nation’s doctors, as well as concerns regarding the proper focus of state medical licensing boards, the American Medical Association took up those matters in June at its annual convention, held this year in Chicago.

AMA members discussed the reluctance of doctors to disclose treatment or seek help for mental health conditions, and the organization adopted a new policy asking “state medical boards to recognize that the presence of a mental health condition does not necessarily equate with an impaired ability to practice medicine.”

A number of hospitals across the United States have already established or are currently implementing programs to assist physicians and other healthcare professionals with the improvement of their mental health and overall well-being. Dr. Gold, however, insists that more needs to be done. Dr. Gold says, “We’re not going to improve physician health until we can take away some of the barriers to seeking help.”

At the national level, Dr. Gold believes the Federation of State Medical Boards, which works with seventy medical and osteopathic boards across the nation, can be influential in a positive way. She said, “I think that’s where change has to come from. It has to come from the group that is advising the state medical boards. They don’t have regulatory authority over the boards, but certainly they can recommend best practices for the states.”

DO FEMALE DOCTORS FACE UNIQUE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES?

Last year, Dr. Gold and her research team independently interviewed about 2,100 female doctors – who are also mothers – about their own mental health histories. Almost fifty percent believed that at some time in their medical careers, they suffered a condition that qualifies as a mental illness, and they did not seek counseling or treatment. Two-thirds of those female physicians indicated that a fear of stigma, and the potential risk to their medical licenses, compelled them to keep quiet and to deal with their conditions silently and by themselves.

Among those interviewed by Dr. Gold and her researchers, a mere six percent of the female doctors diagnosed with a mental condition reported it to their state medical licensing boards. They did not believe that their mental condition in any way impaired their ability to serve the public and provide quality medical care. Dr. Gold says the responses of state medical licensing boards to disclosures made by physicians about their mental conditions vary from state to state and cannot be predicted in advance.

“It completely depends on the board,” Dr. Gold explains. “It could range from the board saying, ‘Just send us a letter from your doctor,’ to ‘send us all of your medical records from all of your treatment,’ to ‘come before the board and give us your defense as to why you are fit to practice,’ or even calling for ongoing monitoring and license restrictions” to be imposed on a particular physician.

Healthcare professionals in Texas with any concerns regarding their professional licenses should not hesitate to speak with an experienced Dallas medical license defense attorney. If you are in danger of a professional license suspension or a revocation, or if your professional license has in fact been suspended or revoked in the state of Texas, make the call at once. Your attorney will understand precisely how important your professional license is, because he or she has one too.

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