Identifying and assisting the impaired physician.
An impaired physician is one unable to fulfill professional or personal responsibilities because of psychiatric illness, alcoholism, or drug dependency. Current estimates are that approximately 15% of physicians will be impaired at some point in their careers. Although physicians may not have higher rates of impairment compared with other professionals, factors in their background, personality, and training may contribute and predispose them to drug abuse and mental illness, particularly depression. Many physicians possess a strong drive for achievement, exceptional conscientiousness, and an ability to deny personal problems. These attributes are advantageous for "success" in medicine; ironically, however, they may also predispose to impairment. Identifying impairment is often difficult because the manifestations are varied and physicians will typically suppress and deny any suggestion of a problem. Identification is essential because patient well-being may be at stake, and untreated impairment may result in loss of license, health problems, and even death. Fortunately, once identified and treated, physicians often do better in recovery than others and typically can return to a productive career and a satisfying personal and family life.