USC scandal raises question of drug testing for doctors

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Random drug testing could save doctors' lives, says one physician.

Alleged drug use by the former dean of the University of Southern California medical school has brought to the forefront the controversial question of whether physicians should be subject to random drug testing.

Some wonder whether such drug testing would have helped Carmen A. Puliafito, M.D., and prevented the scandal that has rocked USC's medical school after the Los Angeles Times published a report that detailed the renowned eye surgeon’s methamphetamine use, partying in the dean’s office and his presence at the scene of a 21-year-old woman’s overdose in a hotel room.

RELATED: Scandal involving medical school dean shines light on doctors and addictions

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Puliafito resigned as dean of the USC Keck School of Medicine in March 2016 shortly after that incident but continued to serve on the faculty and treat patients until the newspaper investigation, when the university started the process to fire him. The latest Times article says Puliafito's problems may not have been so secret. A report published in the newspaper Sunday said the university had received complaints about Puliafito's drinking and abusive behavior from other staff at the medical school and chose to reappoint him five years ago. 

But the case raises the question of whether random drug testing might have made a difference in detecting Puliafito’s drug problems, according to STAT.

In a high-stress work environment, and with easy access to prescription medications, it's estimated that more than 100,000 doctors, nurses, medical technicians and aides abuse these drugs or are addicted to them.

With no state or federal regulations, it’s up to individual hospitals and health systems to decide the question of drug testing, STAT noted.

With many states liberalizing drug laws, Michael Fitzsimons, M.D., who oversees the drug testing program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told STAT healthcare organizations should consider random testing. At his hospital, doctors are tested if there is a suspicion of drug use, with random testing for anesthesiologists.

The issue draws emotional debate, according to a recent Medscape report, that included comments from doctors. One anesthesiologist in practice for 35 years said he knew two faculty members and two residents who died of drug overdoses, with several near-misses. “Random test everyone. . . These were all good people whose behavioral clues were obvious in hindsight, but were excused or written off as fatigue, stress, etc.,” the doctor said.

Other doctors told the publication they were adamantly against random drug testing, saying it violated their rights and was an invasion of privacy.

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