Medical practitioners, it has emerged, are slow to get help because the people they need to approach are very often their peers. Often, their problem is revealed in a crisis situation.
The Practitioner Health Matters Programme (PHMP) aims to strike a balance between supporting practitioners’ confidentiality and patient safety.
The PHMP is an independent charitable organisation that has the support of the representative and training bodies for the medical, dental and pharmacy professions, as well as the three regulatory bodies.
Like the general public, one in four practitioners may have mental health difficulties at some point in their lives.
The rate of alcohol or drug-related problems in the population is between 10% and 15% so it is likely about 10% of doctors, dentists and pharmacists experience similar addiction problems.
There are around 19,000 registered doctors in Ireland, about 2,500 dentists and around 5,000 pharmacists.
According to the Medical Council’s 2014 report, 43 doctors were supported by the council’s health committee to continue practicing during illness, once there was no risk to patient safety.
At the end of the year, 35 doctors were still being supported by the committee, mostly for addiction and mental health reasons. A similar number were supported by the committee in 2013.
The programme’s clinical lead, Dr Íde Delargy said the new service was needed because health professionals were very slow to declare they might have a mental health or addiction problem.
“The key to overcoming this reluctance is to ensure that they will receive a high standard of care in a non-judgmental atmosphere and with complete confidentiality assured,” said Dr Delargy.
“We want people affected by these issues to seek help early and to know they can come forward safely, and in confidence, to have their health needs met,” she said.
“We have a memorandum of understanding with each of the regulators so they recognise the work that we’re doing and support it but they’re not involved.”
Dr Delargy said the “arm’s length” relationship was crucial if they were to encourage more health practitioners to contact them and access the support they might need.
They would not refer anyone to the regulators unless they were unwilling to comply with the treatment programme and/or were putting patients at risk.
“Generally speaking, practitioners who access a service from a designated programme like this do extremely well and about 80% recover and return to working well,” she said.
PHMP chairman Hugh Kane said often the person experiencing difficulties did not realise they needed help.
“That is why we are raising awareness around these issues and we would encourage colleagues, family and friends to watch out for everything from subtle warning signs to the more obvious ones,” said Mr Kane.
“Discussing these issues with someone in difficulty can be extremely challenging but they can also be lifesaving.
“Early intervention is key. Ignoring problems, as we did in the past, benefits no one.”