Addiction among doctors, often caused by familiarity with and easy access to the hard drugs in their own cabinets, is far more prevalent than occasional newspaper headlines suggest. Its scale has received little attention. However, GMC figures show that over the past 13 years the council has investigated 163 doctors for alleged drug abuse.
At the end of last year, 115 doctors suffering from drink or drug abuse or mental illness were registered to practise under medical supervision by the council, and 'about a third', according to a GMC spokesman, had some form of drug problem.
The cases under scrutiny by the GMC include hospital doctors and GPs in roughly equal numbers. Some are recovering from addiction to diamorphine, the pharmaceutical version of pure heroin, to which doctors themselves often have ready access as it is one of the most powerful painkillers. They often go undetected as, according to Dr Brian Wells, a consultant psychiatrist, many people continue to function normally for long periods as long as they get a regular supply.
A highly regarded specialist in addictions, based at the Research Centre for Drugs and Health Behaviour in central London, Dr Wells, 45, is himself in recovery from drug and alcohol addictions 15 years ago. He said: 'I prescribe heroin for a number of addicts who have been on it - high, high doses - for over 20 years.'
It is only the occasional overdose that reveals the problem. Two months ago, Dr Adam Snape collapsed and died after injecting himself with heroin at his surgery in Kew, south-west London. Two empty 10mg vials of diamorphine and one of the painkiller Pethidine were also found. In September last year, Dr Victor Ratner, a Harley Street GP, died in his surgery after taking the heroin substitute methadone.
One senior psychiatrist said that doctors who developed drug problems were often suffering from stress. They had greater access to drugs than most people and were less afraid of the mystique surrounding them: 'It is not uncommon for a doctor with a splitting headache to take a tablet of morphine once or twice in his lifetime.'
The GMC has tried to improve treatment for doctors suffering from drug and alcohol problems. Doctors who are convicted of drug offences or are reported to the GMC by concerned colleagues are now put on a special programme that allows them to continue to practise while they are treated for their addiction.
The scheme operates on two levels. The first screens doctors with medical problems, including drug dependency. Since 1980, when the scheme was set up, 480 doctors have been screened, 163 of them suffering from drug conditions. They are given medical examinations before the council decides whether they can continue to practise, albeit in a restricted way. More than 100 doctors have now recovered in this way.
More severe cases, and those who refuse to be examined or to comply with the council's recommendations, are referred to the Health Committee, which has the legal power to enforce its restrictions on doctors. Of the 45 doctors under the committee's jurisdiction at the start of this year, 40 per cent were permitted to practise, subject to restrictions.
Dr Wells, himself a beneficiary of the scheme, uses his experience to help others in similar situations. 'I am currently working with a GP in south London who has had a heroin problem. I work with people like doctors and airline pilots. They tend to do better than anyone else: they have good jobs and family backgrounds to fall back on.'
He did not agree that most doctors take drugs due to stress. 'People take a chemical because it makes them feel different, more likely because they enjoy it. Doctors have greater access. I was dabbling with Valium and sleeping pills, found I liked them, and got into difficulties.
'England has a real stigma around drugs and alcoholism. Often what is not understood is that these people are ill.'Reuse content