Scandal involving medical school dean shines light on doctors and addictions

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Physicians are often reluctant to seek treatment for substance abuse problems because of the fear they will lose their medical licenses.

Allegations that the prominent dean of the University of Southern California’s medical school used illegal drugs has not only rocked the campus but has also put a spotlight on the problem of drug use and addiction among physicians.

Carmen A. Puliafito, M.D., a renowned eye surgeon, had used drugs extensively while serving as dean of the USC Keck School of Medicine, according to a Los Angeles Times reportThe newspaper’s investigation left the medical school in turmoil as it has now suspended the former dean from its faculty and started the process to fire him (PDF). Puliafito had stepped down as the medical school dean back in March 2016 after a companion overdosed on drugs in a hotel room, the Times said.

However, the story of Puliafito’s secret life of methamphetamine and ecstasy use has opened a window into the pervasiveness of drug use and addiction among doctors and the particular challenges they face in getting help, according to a follow-up Times article.

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RELATED: Law enforcement using prescription drug databases to track physicians with improper prescription habits

Physicians are often reluctant to seek treatment for substance abuse problems because of the fear they will lose their medical licenses. And, since they know the signs of drug use they can often hide them.

“There’s an invulnerability: ‘Well, I’ll just do this the right way, and it’ll never be a problem. I’ll just do this the right way and I’ll never overdose,’ ” Marvin Seppala, M.D., addiction expert and chief medical officer at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, told the newspaper. “Somehow they believe their knowledge is going to be more powerful than addiction.”

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

A study released last month found that 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. States are significantly more likely to ask whether physicians had been diagnosed, treated or hospitalized for mental health or substance abuse than for physical health disorders, the study found.

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