True Or False? Doctors Are Unwilling To Report Impaired Or Incompetent Colleagues


Sadly this is true.

A new study reveals that work-place monitoring of the competency and sobriety of physicians is severely lacking. According to the study, although your doctor may be impaired or incompetent, his or her colleagues are not likely to report him or her to the proper authorities. Conducted by a team from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the study used data from a 2009 national survey of about 3,000 physicians practicing in anesthesiology, cardiology, family practice, general surgery, internal medicine, pediatrics and psychiatry.

Its results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and authored by Harvard Medical School researcher, Catherine DesRoches, found that although 17 percent of doctors surveyed had direct knowledge of a colleague being impaired by drugs or alcohol, or incompetent, they did nothing to report them. More than one-third of all 3,000 physicians surveyed said that they felt “no professional committment” to report an impaired or incompetent colleague.

According to the study, physicians stated that they failed to report their impaired or incompetent colleagues because they believed that (1) some else was going to address the problem, (2) the problem could not be fixed, or (3) that the punishment given to their colleague would be too severe.

Interestingly, those physicians most likely to report their colleagues were less experienced, and generally had only been working for ten years or less. In contrast, those physicians that had been practicing for twenty years or more felt that they “had less of a responsibility” to report impaired or incompetent physicians.Futhermore, those physicians in a solo or two-person practice were extremely unlikely to report an incompetent colleague – less than half of such physicians surveyed had reported a colleague that they knew to be impaired or incompetent.

I think that these physicians’ behavior is absolutely appalling. I believe that when you are responsible for the health and well-being of others, as physicians are, you have a heightened duty to ensure that you protect patients (whether or not they are your own) from colleagues that may cause them harm due to impairment or incompetence. Physicians go through a lot of training and education to be within the medical profession, and not only are they in the best place to recognize incompetence and impairment, but should demonstrate that they are intelligent enough to step up and report a colleague if need be. It is discouraging that the people that we trust our health to may naive enough to think someone else will report an impaired or incompetent physician, or arrogant enough to think that it isn’t their problem. While it is encouraging that less experienced physicians may report their impaired or incompetent colleagues, it is not enough to rely on their willingness alone. Physicians that have been around for twenty or more years can not just continue to stand by and wait for their incompetent or impaired colleagues to commit malpractice. They need to remember their Hippocratic Oath to “keep the sick… from harm and injustice”. Those doctors that do stand by and wait for malpractice to happen, may just be incompetent themselves.