Probe by state medical licensing boards may keep physicians from seeking mental health treatment

Female nurse looking stressed
Fears about the impact on their medical license may keep doctors from seeking help for mental health issues. (Getty/gpointstudio)

State medical licensing boards, which ask more questions about doctors’ mental health than physical health that could lead to impairment, may promote stigma and keep physicians from seeking help, according to a new study.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Michigan and published in Family Medicine, found state medical boards ask physicians much more extensive and intrusive questions about mental health conditions than about physical conditions.

"The differences were really quite striking. States were significantly more likely to ask if physicians had been diagnosed, treated or hospitalized for mental health or substance abuse verses for physical health disorders, often asking about many years in the past,” said lead author Katherine J. Gold, M.D., assistant professor in the university’s department of family medicine.

In fact, the study found many of the questions violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The problem is that states don’t focus on whether doctors have a problem that currently affects their ability to provide good patient care, Gold said, but ask broad questions that could intrude on physician privacy and prevent doctors form seeking care for problems such as depression. Despite the questions, licensing board don’t necessarily pick up on impaired physicians, she said.

With the growing concern about physician burnout, suicide and wellbeing, the American Medical Association this week focused on the problem of physicians’ reluctance to disclose and seek treatment for mental health conditions because of the impact it could have on their medical license.

At its annual meeting in Chicago, AMA delegates took action to destigmatize and study mental illness among physicians and medical students.

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The new AMA policy encourages “state medical boards to recognize that the presence of a mental health condition does not necessarily equate with an impaired ability to practice medicine.”

Michigan Medical is among the hospitals across the country implementing programs to help residents and physicians improve their overall wellness and resilience. But Gold says more comprehensive and system-level changes are needed as well.

"We're not going to improve physician health until we can take away some of the barriers to seeking help," she says.