Indiana surgeon suspected of working under influence of alcohol, cocaine faces sanctions

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The Indiana State Medical Association wants a federal judge to allow it to turn over confidential records to the state licensing board regarding a surgeon suspected of working under the influence of cocaine and alcohol.

The state medical association filed a petition this month in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, seeking permission to turn over records of the surgeon. The petition did not name the surgeon, or give any details on his specialty or the location of his practice.

“A surgeon under the influence, or even suffering from the effects of significant alcohol use and cocaine use, presents a substantial threat to life or of serious bodily injury to patients,” the petition said.

The issue arose when the state medical association learned that the surgeon had a number of formally documented “clinical concerns” regarding surgeries and patient care by the surgeon.

The state medical association referred the surgeon, identified only as Dr. John Doe, for an evaluation which lasted for three days and consisted of physical tests and interviews with co-workers.

The evaluation concluded that the surgeon’s hair test results showed cocaine use, his blood test showed alcohol use over a certain period of time, and that coworkers suspected alcohol abuse due to the smell of alcohol on his breath and the observation of tremors.

The evaluation team, which included a physician, stated that Dr. John Doe “is currently not safe to practice medicine with reasonable skill and safety.”

After receiving the results of the report, the surgeon requested another evaluation at a different facility. The state medical association received the report of the second evaluation, which agreed with the diagnosis of the first evaluation, and stated “the team cannot endorse his return to clinical practice at this time.”

Both facilities recommended that the surgeon participate in an approved residential treatment program for professionals prior to return to clinical practice.

The surgeon received the results of the two evaluations but declined recommendations to go into treatment, the petition said.

Indiana law requires the state medical association to report such information to the state licensing board, which is the official governing body that can impose disciplinary action, such as suspending or revoking a physician’s license.

But federal law in this area pre-empts state law, and protects the records and identity of any patient (including this surgeon) that are maintained in connection with the performance of any program relating to substance abuse disorder education, including the state medical association’s Commission on Physician Assistance, which received the surgeon’s records and evaluations.

Thus, the medical association is prohibited from making a report unless the surgeon consents to the disclosure, “which he has refused to do.”

The petition said the only recourse is for a judge to grant an order to disclose the records, “showing good cause…including the need to avert a substantial risk of death or serious bodily harm.”

The medical association is also requesting an order allowing it to disclose the surgeon’s records to the Indiana attorney general’s office, which is responsible for investigating complaints about licensed physicians.

However, it’s unclear at what point the surgeon’s identity would be made public. The medical association is requesting that a federal judge hold a confidential hearing.

Under federal law, the court may hold a hearing, provided it is “held in the judge’s chambers or in some manner which ensures that patient identifying information is not disclosed to anyone other than a party to the proceeding, the patient, or the person holding the record, unless the patient requests an open hearing,” the petition said.

None of the filings in the docket identified a lawyer for Dr. John Doe. The case was assigned to Judge Tanya Walton Pratt.

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