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What Is Physician Impairment?

By Jennifer Mackin
Updated: May 17, 2024

Physician impairment occurs when a physician’s ability to give adequate care to his patients is compromised by a mental, physical or behavioral disorder. For the most part, substance abuse typically is the leading cause of physician impairment. Depression, physical injury and aging are other types of impairment as well.

Many physicians can hide their impairment from co-workers and family members. There are, however, some warning signs of physician impairment, although the signs might be subtle at first. Doctors can become overly dedicated to their job by working longer hours and neglecting social obligations, such as their family and friends. This intense focus on work can be used as a way to keep co-workers from becoming suspicious.

Co-workers and family members might start to see slight changes in the physician’s behavior at home and at work. A typically relaxed doctor might suddenly become easily irritated, and aging doctors might forget simple procedures. Depressed doctors might be easily distracted or unfocused. A physician also might start to take more breaks than usual or start being absent more often. Anything that is out of character from the physician’s typical behavior should be taken into account.

Physician impairment that is caused by substance abuse might show warning signs faster than depression or aging. A change in the physician’s personal hygiene might become noticeable. Physicians who have started drinking too much might use excessive amounts of mouthwash or cologne to mask the odor of alcohol. They also might start coming to work in wrinkled clothes or skipping showers.

One of the more dangerous signs of physician impairment is when the physician starts to make careless mistakes without regard to the safety of his co-workers or patients. This can be especially true for physicians who have formed a dependency on drugs or alcohol. Withdrawals can cause tremors that can make surgical procedure dangerous. Substance abuse also can affect rational thinking, which can cause their decision-making to become flawed.

Signs of physician impairment might not be noticed right away. It can sometimes take years to see consistent warning signs. Whenever a co-worker has a concern about a physician’s ability to do his or her job, the co-worker should bring those concerns to the attention of the healthcare facility's medical board.

Physician impairment can be very dangerous for everyone involved if it is ignored. There are programs available for physicians who have impairments so that they can get the help that they need. Without help, there is a possibility that the physician can make a mistake that not only puts his or her license to practice medicine at risk, but also the life of his patient.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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