A Brief History of Physician Health Programs

State physician health programs were mostly established in the late 1970s in response to mounting “policing” efforts by medical regularity licensing boards and a 1973 seminal paper titled “The Sick Physician.” They were spearheaded by a group of dedicated physicians, many of whom were themselves in recovery from addiction, with the idea that disciplinary action was not the most effective approach to treating illness.

Over the past three decades, physician health programs have evolved under the authority of medical licensing boards with support from the American Medical Association. The AMA has held conferences on physician health since 1975, while medical societies have organized volunteer committees on physician impairment.

Such widespread support for PHPs is the result of the assumption that early detection and active long-term management of substance abuse problems in physicians protects patients and the public. When substance abuse is addressed prior to a crisis, legal battles can be avoided, intervention occurs more rapidly, and careers and lives are preserved.

Currently, all but four states in the U.S. have formal PHPs, ranging in size from one employee and a $20,000 budget to a $1.5 million budget and 19 full-time employees. An estimated 9,000 physicians are in PHP monitoring in the U.S.