QUESTION: As a Medical Staff leader, what steps do I take if someone reports to me that a physician who is rounding on patients smells of alcohol or appears to be confused? While this doesn’t happen often, I want to be prepared.
ANSWER: We couldn’t agree more. These are the situations you have to plan for in advance so you can react quickly when action is needed.
The first step is adopt a good Practitioner Health Policy that outlines the authority of Medical Staff leaders to address such situations. Among other things, the Policy should:
- Identify who has the authority to assess the situation and take needed action. This should include a broad list of individuals so someone is always available. Also, the Policy should permit designees to act if needed;
- State that the physician can be required to submit to a blood, hair, or urine test, or other appropriate physical or cognitive evaluation, to determine his or her ability to safely practice;
- State that a physician’s failure to agree to such testing will result in the “automatic relinquishment” of the physician’s clinical privileges pending further review of the matter. (An “automatic relinquishment” occurs by operation of the Policy and is not a professional review action that raises hearing rights or reports to government agencies);
- Offer guidance on the use of voluntary agreements to refrain from practicing while a matter is reviewed. Particularly with health issues, it’s best to avoid (if possible) the use of “suspensions;”
- Define a process for identifying someone to take care of the physician’s patients while the review continues.
The next step is to be sure Medical Staff leaders and hospital staff are aware of their duties and authority under the Policy. Staff should know they are required to report health issues, and shouldn’t “enable” the physician’s continued health problem by covering up for the physician. Medical Staff leaders should rehearse the steps they will take when these situations arise so they are comfortable acting when needed to protect patients and the physician in question.
To learn more about dealing with physician health issues, please join us for Strategies for Managing Physician Health and Disruptive Conduct in Las Vegas, Nevada this coming fall.