AS many as 1,300 Oklahoma doctors could be plagued with substance abuse

Friday, November 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Perfectionist personalities, stress, fatigue and easy access to prescription drugs can lead to doctors abusing drugs and alcohol, a number that could be as high as 1,300 in Oklahoma.

Genetics and the need to control things also are factors that contribute to a physician's slide into substance abuse, said Dr. Harold Thiessen, who serves as director of the Health Professionals Recovery Program.

``These tend to be the best and brightest doctors ... who fall prey,'' Thiessen said Thursday during a break at a meeting of the Oklahoma State Board of Medical Licensure.

The licensure board considered disciplinary action against seven medical doctors who had been accused of substance abuse violations.

The board regulates Oklahoma's 5,383 licensed doctors of medicine. A separate board regulates the state's 1,100 doctors of osteopathy.

Dr. Orville L. Webb of Lawton and Dr. Terry Rapp of Miami, Okla., surrendered their licenses in lieu of prosecution for drug-related offenses. Other disciplinary actions or case continuances included Drs. Steven R. Marburger, Kimberly Gage and Elliott H. Howe of Tulsa; Dr. Ricky Joe Nelson of Oklahoma City; and Dr. Donald Becker of Blackwell.

Physicians suffer from two conditions Thiessen termed ``MDiety'' and the ``candy store effect.''

``They're highly trained and disciplined to treat illnesses,'' said Thiessen, himself a recovering alcoholic.

``So instead of calling a colleague for help, they tend to want to treat themselves, and that rarely works. And they really have access to drugs _ like a kid in a candy store.''

Doctors often get large supplies of free drug samples and abusers frequently write illegal prescriptions for themselves, he said.

Board Executive Director Lyle R. Kelsey said violations are on the rise, which he attributes to colleagues, co-workers, pharmacists and hospital employees coming forward more to report doctors impaired by drugs and alcohol.

Thiessen said patient care and how substance abuse can ``affect a doctor's ability to practice good medicine'' are of primary concern. Thiessen said typical cases involve doctors who initially start using prescription drugs for back pain or other chronic illnesses.

``Then, they begin taking painkillers to treat stress and nervousness, and they really start liking the euphoria,'' he said. ``They start taking more and more, and before you know it, the drugs affect their behavior and their judgment.''

The Health Professionals Recovery Program, formerly called the Physician Recovery Program, started in 1983. It has helped about 800 physicians in 18 years, and has a recovery rate of 85 percent, Thiessen said.

The Oklahoma program normally refers doctors to long-term recovery programs in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oregon or Virginia. Those clinics are designed to treat doctors, business executives, attorneys and ministers.

Treatment lasts from three months to a year. After in-patient treatment, doctors in the recovery program must agree to five years of aftercare that includes random drug screening.

The treatment program is funded by the Physicians Liability Insurance Program, and the state medical and osteopathic associations.

From February 2000 to June 2001, 12 osteopathic physicians were involved in long-term, out-of-state treatment prompted by participation in the recovery program, said Lynette McLain, executive director of the Oklahoma Osteopathic Association.