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A doctor’s story

A doctor who was referred to a medical practitioners tribunal hearing after a struggle with drink and drug addiction talks about his road to recovery:

"I first came to the notice of the GMC in March 2003, when I referred myself, having crashed my car while under the influence of alcohol. It was also discovered, from a random urine test, that I had been taking opiate based analgesics.

"I did not have to appear before a medical practitioners tribunal at that time, but was asked to agree to a list of undertakings. These included absolute abstention from drinking alcohol and self-medication - including over the counter medicines containing opiates.

"Amongst my list of undertakings was an agreement to provide specimens of breath, urine, blood and hair, whenever required, for testing.

"I managed to achieve ‘white knuckle’ abstention from alcohol, but did not embark on any treatment for my addictive illness (at that time, I did not recognise that I had an illness, and thought like everyone else it seemed, that I must simply be weak, wicked and wilful).

"I thought that my drug taking was secondary to my alcohol dependence. I used opiates to treat the unpleasant symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. My attitude to life did not change, and I began to take codeine again, this time as a substitute for alcohol, to make myself feel better. I began to write myself prescriptions using patient names and I very quickly became hopelessly addicted to codeine."

Road to recovery

"When this was discovered I went into a residential treatment centre for health care professionals in Derbyshire; Birdsgrove House (now sadly closed) where I underwent detox and began on the road to recovery from my addiction. My case was referred to a medical practitioners tribunal in summer 2004 and that began a five year involvement with the GMC’s fitness to practise procedures.

"Throughout the process I was supported by a medico-legal expert and solicitor appointed by the Medical Protection Society whose professional and non-judgmental advice made this as humane as possible.

"I was also supported by my mentor, a retired GP, who had previous experience of Local Medical Committee and GMC procedures involving doctors with health problems including alcohol and drug dependence. He provided regular, weekly meetings at a time when it appeared that no one else was willing to talk to me and which in retrospect kept up my morale when at times I felt that all was hopeless."

Respect

"The GMC treated me fairly and with respect throughout. For some reason I was not expecting this, and thought that I would be looked upon as a criminal. I found this attitude extremely reassuring.

"Conditions were imposed upon my practice and, subject to these, I was allowed to continue to work, safely, as a GP. Unfortunately my PCT decided to suspend me from their Performers’ List and I subsequently lost my job as a principal in General Practice. It was to be about 18 months before I would work again.

"It was quite possible that I would never be able to resume earning a living and supporting my family by practising my profession. This is an aspect of the process which undoubtedly causes the greatest distress to doctors who find themselves in a position similar to mine."

Compassion and commitment

"I count myself extremely fortunate in having good local supportive surveillance from my GMC supervisor, a consultant psychiatrist from the regional Drug and Alcohol Unit. She managed to combine her strict GMC surveillance role with compassion and careful advice (often looking beyond my professional life into relevant pastoral areas). This proved to be an exceptionally important factor in my professional and personal recovery and rehabilitation.

"The GMC fitness to practise procedures are time consuming, involving a huge commitment from GMC staff, tribunal members and specialist advisors. I honestly regret the cost and trouble that I have been responsible for through my dealings with the GMC, but if one of the aims is to return safe and healthy doctors to appropriate medical practice, thus avoiding the waste of invaluable training, experience and talent, then economically and humanely, it is enormously important and worthwhile."

Sustained recovery

"I am now enjoying a sustained recovery from my addictive illness. Following advice and support from the Deanery and a three month period of supervised practice in a sympathetic training practice, coupled with on-going voluntary professional mentoring, I returned to GP locum work in 2005. This has led to a permanent part-time salaried partnership in the same practice in which I underwent my period of supervised practice, which I have enjoyed for the last three years. I have also trained as a GP mentor and I am involved in running a charitable support group for doctors and dentists with alcohol issues.

"In June 2009, I received a letter from my investigating officer at the GMC informing me that the conditions placed on my registration had been removed and that further GMC supervision would cease.

"I have come a long way since being called in front of the GMC seven years ago and my life, both personally and professionally, has never been happier or more fulfilling. The GMC process (which is not something that I would wish to repeat!) drove my early recovery from my addictive illness, but I continue to pursue recovery because I love the way I now feel and the quality of my 'new life'."

Support

"I have been extremely lucky to find sympathetic and non-judgmental colleagues who have helped me regain my feet and get back to work in a job that I love. I am also extremely indebted to my wife and family, who I have dragged through all of this, and who also suffered in the wake of my active illness, and who have stuck by me."