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Testing Doctors for Drugs

An article posted at the NORML website for Pennsylvania asks the rhetorical question, “Should Doctors be Subject to Random Drug Tests?”

At first, it seems like a bit of sour grapes. NORML is the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and might be expected to hold a bit of a grudge when it comes to drug testing. However, reading past the headline, one finds the question isn’t being asked by marijuana advocates, but by doctors themselves – at least a few.

The push to have drug testing for physicians actually comes from a report in the Journal of the American Medical Society and reflects a concern that some doctors might be practicing while impaired.

The surprise isn’t that doctors might be abusing drugs; after all, they have easy access and a high-stress job, a dangerous combination. The surprise is that the problem is getting a public airing. Currently, doctors found to be abusing drugs or alcohol are usually offered a chance to clean up their acts by entering a treatment program. If they meet all the benchmarks, they can return to practice without undue penalty. But these matters are usually handled privately and outside the view of the public. The debate in the AMA Journal brings it out into the open.

The matter is presented as a patient safety issue and the authors make the point: “Testing doctors involved in patient deaths or serious complications for drug and alcohol influence should be part of hospitals’ procedure for investigating critical incidents.”

“Patients and their family members have a right to be protected from impaired physicians,” the authors wrote in the article. “In other high-risk industries, this right is supported by regulations and surveillance. Shouldn’t medicine be the same?”

They make the parallel with post-accident drug and alcohol testing for truck drivers and say the same principle should apply to physicians.

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