Medical boards change or consider amending mental health-related licensing questions


Delicia M. Haynes, MD, wants the Florida Board of Medicine to take another look at how its licensing applications query physicians about their mental health history. Her state’s board is one of several nationwide that has, in recent years, mulled whether the phrasing of its questions poses an unintended hurdle for physicians who need help for conditions such as depression.

Dr. Delicia M. Haynes, founder and CEO of Family First Health Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., gives a presentation. Courtesy of Family First Health Center

Dr. Delicia M. Haynes presents at the Halifax Health general staff meeting on National Physician Suicide Awareness Day.

The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) recommends limiting such queries, if they must be asked, to questions about potential current impairment. But the Florida license application takes a more sweeping approach that may discourage physicians from seeking treatment, Dr. Haynes, founder and CEO of Family First Health Center in Daytona Beach, Fla., said in a video. She describes herself as a direct primary care physician.

In the video, which was posted on YouTube in January, 2019, Dr. Haynes discussed her own experience with having been treated for depression and then needing to report that to the state board. Florida’s license application asks if physicians have been treated within the past 5 years for a mental disorder that has impaired the ability to practice medicine. Those who have had such a condition may need to give the board an explanation providing the names of the physicians, therapists, and counselors they have seen, as well as details and dates for the institutions where they received treatment.

State medical boards play a critical role in protecting people from physicians whose current mental health conditions may risk harming patients, Dr. Haynes said. But they must balance that against the consequences of overly intrusive questioning. Florida’s current application wording may deter physicians from seeking care if they develop conditions such as depression, she said.

“It’s the fear of what’s going to happen if I have to check yes,” Dr. Haynes said in her YouTube video. Physicians will wonder how getting treatment could put their license and their employment at risk, she added.

“It’s really important that [state medical boards] are asking the questions that matter and those questions are questions that talk about impairment, and not just having a history,” Dr. Haynes said.

Members of Florida’s board of medicine last year favorably discussed making such a change during a rules/legislative committee meeting, but have not yet implemented it. The board has postponed further discussion of this topic until its December meeting, said Brad Dalton, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health.

Dr. Haynes said in an email that she will continue to press for changes in her state’s licensing application.

There’s been a wave of reconsideration of these kinds of questions, spurred by FSMB efforts, which included the board’s offering specific advice to state medical boards about questions on licensing applications as part of a set of recommendations on addressing physician wellness and burnout last year in a report.

Boards have the option of omitting or dropping specific inquiries about mental health. But if they choose to retain this question, FSMB recommends using this phrasing: “Are you currently suffering from any condition for which you are not being appropriately treated that impairs your judgment or that would otherwise adversely affect your ability to practice medicine in a competent, ethical and professional manner? (Yes/No)” the report says.

The staff of the Medical Board of California cited FSMB’s recommendation in a January 2019 report about revising the state’s approach to asking physicians about their mental health. In May 2019, the board voted unanimously to revise its questions on physicians’ mental health, narrowing its inquiry on the licensing application to focus on current impairment.

“There are many doctors who do not seek treatment or find it threatening to seek treatment, because they are concerned that they may lose their license,” Peter Yellowlees, MBBS, MD, chief wellness officer and a professor of psychiatry at University of California, Davis, said in a public comment offered at the meeting. “This is ultimately all about patient safety.”

In addition to California and Florida, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi and Oklahoma have made recent drives to reconsider the phrasing of the mental health question, said Joe Knickrehm, a spokesman for the FSMB. Over the past few years, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Vermont and Washington have made changes to their licensing questions, he added.

Still, state boards are not moving quickly enough to remove or revise these questions about mental health, said Katherine J. Gold, MD MSW, associate professor in the department of family medicine at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She has studied how these queries can deter physicians from seeking treatment for mental illness. A past treatment for postpartum depression may have no bearing on a physician’s practice, yet members of many state medical boards hesitate to alter their approach, she noted.

Groups including the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Psychiatric Association also have pushed in recent years for changes in state rules about what a physician has to disclose about mental health, with the FSMB taking a lead in these efforts. In many cases, physicians face questions about their mental health that are beyond the limits of standards set by the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to an article published this year in the FSMB’s Journal of Medical Regulation. As of 2017, a review of questions on initial licensure applications for all 50 states and the District of Columbia showed that 32 licensing boards ask questions beyond the limits of ADA standards, the article said.

Consequences of “reporting stable and easily treatable conditions such as anxiety or depression to a state licensing board can range from a physician simply being required to submit a letter from their primary care provider documenting fitness to practice, to a request to appear before the board, to being required to undergo and pay for an examination by a board-appointed physician,” wrote Catherine M. Welcher, an AMA senior policy analyst, and coauthors of the paper, including Humayun J. Chaudhry, DO, FSMB’s CEO.


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