Should physicians with OUDs return to practice after treatment?

New review points to importance of sustained recovery


A new article in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences provides an impressive review of research on the complex impairments produced by a wide range of drugs of abuse with a close look at physicians and other health care professionals.1

Dr. Robert L. DuPont is the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the president of the Institute for Behavior and Health in Rockville, Md.

Dr. Robert L. DuPont

This review breaks new ground in outlining fitness for duty as an important outcome of the state physician health programs (PHPs). In addition, the review and case report by Alexandria G. Polles, MD, and colleagues are a response to the growing call for the state PHP system of care management to explicitly endorse the use of medication-assisted treatment, specifically the use of buprenorphine and methadone, in the treatment of physicians diagnosed with opioid use disorder (OUD). The article usefully situates the controversy in the context of other safety-sensitive jobs, including commercial pilots, truck drivers, and police, because of the elevated rate of substance use disorders among physicians and the safety-sensitive nature of the practice of medicine.

Dr. Mark S. Gold, 7th Distinguished Alumni Professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and professor of psychiatry (adjunct) at Washington University, St. Louis. He is chairman of the scientific advisory boards for RiverMend Health.

Dr. Mark S. Gold

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT)2 for opioid use disorders now dominates the field of treatment in terms of prescribing and also funding to address the opioid overdose crisis. MAT generally includes naltrexone and injectable naltrexone, though those antagonist medications have been used successfully for many decades by PHPs.3 However, to understand the controversy over the use of MAT in the care management of physicians first requires an understanding of state PHPs and how those programs oversee the care of physicians diagnosed with substance use disorders (SUDs), including OUDs.

A national blueprint study of PHPs showed that care begins with a formal diagnostic evaluation.4 Only when a diagnosis of an SUD is established is a physician referred to the attention of a state PHP, and a monitoring contract is signed. PHPs typically do not offer any direct treatment; instead, they manage the care of physician participants in programs in which the PHPs have confidence. Formal addiction treatment most often is 30 days of residential treatment, but many physicians receive intensive outpatient treatment.

After completing an episode of formal treatment, physicians are closely monitored, usually for 5 years, through random drug and alcohol tests, and work site monitors. They are required to engage in intensive recovery support, typically 12-step fellowships but also other alternative recovery support programs. Comorbid conditions, including mental health disorders, are also treated. Managing PHPs have no sanctions for noncompliance; however, importantly, they do offer a safe haven from state medical licensing boards for physicians who are compliant with their recommendations and who remain abstinent from any use of alcohol, marijuana, illicit drugs, or other nonmedical drug use.

The national blueprint study included 16 state PHPs and reviewed single episodes of PHP care for 908 physicians. Complete abstinence from any use of alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs was required of all physicians for monitoring periods of at least 5 years. During the extended period, 78% of the physicians did not have a single positive or missed test. Two-thirds of physicians who had one positive or missed test did not have a second. About a dozen publications have resulted from this national study, including an analysis of the roughly one-third of the physicians who were diagnosed with OUD.5

A sample of 702 PHP participants was grouped based on primary drug at intake: alcohol only, any opioid with or without alcohol, and nonopioid drugs. No significant differences were found among these groups in the percentage who completed PHP contracts, failed to complete their contract, or extended their contract and continued to be monitored. Only one physician received methadone to treat chronic pain. None received opioid agonists to treat their opioid use disorder. Opioid antagonist medication (naltrexone) was used for 40 physicians, or 5.7% of the total sample: 2 physicians (1%) from the alcohol-only group; 35 physicians (10.3%) from the any opioid group, and 3 physicians (1.9%) from nonopioid group.

The second fact that needs to be understood is that medical practice in relationship to SUDs is treated by state licensing boards as a safety-sensitive job, analogous to commercial airline pilots who have the Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS),6 which is their own care management program analogous to that of PHPs. A similar program exists for attorneys known as Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP).7 Fitness for duty and prevention of harm are major concerns in occupations such as those of physicians, commercial truck drivers, and people working in the nuclear power industry, all of whom have similar safety protections requiring no drug use.

A third fact that deserves special attention is that the unique system of care management for physicians began in the early 1970s. It grew out of employee assistance programs, led then and often now by physicians who are themselves in recovery from SUDs. Many of the successful addiction treatment tools used today come from extensive research of their use in PHPs. Contingency management, 12 steps, caduceus recovery, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and treatment outcomes defined in years are examples in which PHP research helped change treatment and long-term management of SUDs in non-PHP populations.

Dr. Polles and colleagues provide an impressive and comprehensive summary of the issues involved in the new interest in providing the physicians with OUD under PHP care management the option of using buprenorphine or methadone. Such a model within an abstinence-based framework is now being pioneered by a variety of programs, from COAT8 at West Virginia University, Morgantown, to the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.9 In those programs, patients with OUD are offered the option of using buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone as well as the option of using none of those medications in an extended abstinence-based intensive treatment. The authors impressively and fairly summarize the evidence on whether there are cognitive or behavioral deficits associated with the therapeutic use of either buprenorphine or methadone, which might make them unacceptable for physicians. The strongest evidence that these medicines are not necessary in the treatment of OUDs in PHPs is the outstanding outcomes PHPs produce without use of these two medications. If skeptical of the use of medications for OUD treatment in PHP care management, Dr. Polles and colleagues are open to experiments to test the effects of this option just as Florida PHP programs pioneered contracts that included mandatory naltrexone.10 West Virginia University, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, and other programs should be tested to evaluate just how safe, effective, and attractive such an option would be to physicians.

Many, if not most, SUD treatment programs that use MAT are not associated with the intensive psychological treatment or extended participation in recovery support, such as the 12-step fellowships. MAT is viewed as a harm reduction strategy rather than conceptualized as an abstinence-oriented treatment. For example, there is seldom a “sobriety date” among individuals in MAT, i.e., the last day the individual used any substance of abuse, including alcohol and marijuana. These are, however, central features of PHP care, and they are features of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s definition of recovery11 and use of MAT.

Dr. Polles and colleagues call attention to the unique care management of the PHP for all SUDs, not just for OUDs, because the PHPs set the standard for returning physicians to work who have the fitness and cognitive skills to first do no harm. They emphasize the importance of making sustained recovery the expected outcome of SUD treatment. There is a robust literature on the ways in which this distinctive system of care management shows the path forward for addiction treatment generally to regularly achieve 5-year recovery.12 The current controversy over the potential use of buprenorphine and buprenorphine plus naloxone in PHPs is a useful entry into this far larger issue of the potential for PHPs to show the path forward for the addiction treatment field.

Dr. DuPont, the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is president of the Institute for Behavior and Health Inc., a nonprofit drug-policy research organization in Rockville, Md. He has no disclosures. Dr. Gold is professor of psychiatry (adjunct) at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also the 17th Distinguished Alumni Professor at the University of Florida Gainesville. He has no disclosures.


1. Polles AG et al. J Neurol Sci. 2020 Jan 30;411:116714.

2. Oesterle TS et al. Mayo Clin Proc. 2019 Oct;94(10):2072-86.

3. Srivastava AB and Gold MS. Cerebrum. 2018 Sep-Oct; cer-13-8.

4. DuPont RL et al. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2009 Mar 1;36(2):159-71.

5. Merlo LJ et al. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2016 May 1;64:47-54.

6. Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS): An Occupational Substance Abuse Treatment Program.

7. Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (CoLAP).

8. Lander LR et al. J Neurol Sci. 2020;411:116712-8.

9. Klein AA et al. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2019;104:51-63.

10. Merlo LJ et al. J Addict Med. 2012;5(4):279-83.

11. Betty Ford Consensus Panel. J Subst Abuse Treat. 2007 Oct;33(3):221-8.

12. Carr GD et al. “Physician health programs: The U.S. model.” In KJ Brower and MB Riba, (eds.) Physician Mental Health and Well-Being (pp. 265-94). Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2017.

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