Study shows many of state's doctors drink while on call

By Megan R. Harrell

STAR STAFF
mharrell@starhq.com

   A recent study published by the British Medical Journal found some doctors in Tennessee are drinking while on call. Nearly one quarter of the doctors who responded to the study admitted consuming alcohol during hours they could be asked to report to the hospital.
   "I think the subject of this study has not been an issue that's been discussed previously. That in itself, is surprising," said Ames Peterman, professor at University of the South, and one of the study's leaders.
   The new research raises the issue of finding balance between physicians' personal freedoms and their obligation to patients.
   The study was based on a survey of 135 doctors. Nearly 14 percent of the respondents stated they believe social drinking is acceptable while on call, and only half of those surveyed informed their patients they had consumed alcohol prior to treating them.
   An even larger percentage of doctors surveyed were willing to admit they were aware of colleagues who imbibed while on call. Approximately 64 percent said they had encounters with other doctors whom they believe drank while on call.
   One of the most alarming conclusions in the study was that 27 percent of the doctors surveyed stated they knew of other doctors who were impaired by alcohol while on duty.
   Researchers believe the study calls for medical officials to begin looking toward uniform rules regarding the use of alcohol during on-call hours.
   "There is no standard rule about what is acceptable for doctors in terms of drinking alcohol while on-call, so people then make up their own rules. There is ambiguity in doctor's minds as to whether on-call time is private time or work time," said Peterman. "That's, in a way, the question that needs to be brought out in people's minds, so a decision can be made on it."
   The researchers circulated a survey with 10 questions to gather doctors' opinions about alcohol use while on call. Doctors from a random sampling were sent surveys and approximately 65 percent responded.
   Richard Lewis works with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in Elizabethton, and the study piqued his concern for patients coming under the care of doctors who have been drinking. As an advocate for families negatively effected by alcohol, Lewis believes the study merits serious attention.
   "The study does not pertain to a drunk driving issue, but it does pertain to patients who may be doctored by a doctor who may be under the influence," Lewis said. "I was shocked when I read this study."
   Local health care providers maintain on-call drinking is not a problem among their physicians. Mountain States Health Alliance (MSHA) vice-president, Ed Herbert said the doctors in the health care system monitor themselves when it comes to determining their level of alcohol consumption while on-call. He said MSHA has had very few problems with on-call doctors being compromised by alcohol.
   "There are very strict policies, rules, and consequences. If a physician is impaired it is a very serious thing that could effect outcomes," Herbert said.
   According to Herbert, a committee oversees and enforces hospital policy regarding the use of alcohol. If a doctor is suspected of being impaired by alcohol, their partner or their hospital must cover the shift for them. The doctor in question is then interviewed by the vice-president of medical affairs, and, if deemed necessary, will be sent to the Tennessee Medical Foundation for treatment.
   "We have an incredible group of physicians at MSHA that have been supportive of this system and monitor themselves and cover for each other," Herbert said. He added it is many times doctors, not patients, who step forward to make sure the quality of care is not being compromised by alcohol.
   The researchers in the study admit more data needs to be collected on the issue before stronger conclusions can be made.