Massachusetts Medical Society: Physician Health Services: Self-Referrals Now Exceed 40 Percent

Physician Health Services: Self-Referrals Now Exceed 40 Percent

Physician Health Matters

One Client’s Words: “It’s Amazing That Such Help Exists”


We recently reviewed more than 90 consecutive referrals to Physician Health Services, Inc. All of these physicians and medical students contacted PHS to request services during a six-month period in 2015. The services we provided include support, consultation, assessment, triage, and long-term oversight (monitoring). This article summarizes some of the findings and conclusions that we can learn from these 90-plus referrals.

We are looking at the tip of a very large iceberg. There are approximately 30,000 medical students, residents, and practicing physicians in Massachusetts. These 90 referrals — of which 40 percent were cases in which doctors referred themselves — are a subset of more than 400 individuals who make use of PHS services in a given calendar year. This N of 400 includes new referrals, ongoing monitoring clients, and individuals who make use of any of our affiliated physician support groups throughout the state. Our penetration rate of nearly 1.5 percent compares favorably with other robust state physician health programs. Nonetheless, the majority of physicians with significant health challenges are not taking advantage of our confidential, free, peer-review protected program. Many of the physicians who come our way have been “sitting on” a worrisome, progressive health problem for months or years. Unfortunately, our culture of putting the care of others ahead of our own care is still alive and well.

We are excited by the growing number of self-referrals. Our review demonstrates that self-referrals now exceed 40 percent of new PHS clients. Increasingly, we are recognized as a helpful resource for doctors and medical students who are eager to get help before a problem or difficult situation starts to get in their way and leads to “the wrong kind of attention.” Although many of these self-referrals involve concerns regarding stress, burnout and work-life balance, others involve psychiatric and substance-related challenges. In general, self-referred PHS clients make excellent use of one or two meetings at PHS, and they use the information and suggestions provided to get the help they need. Their anonymous and unsolicited feedback has been uniformly enthusiastic. Here’s what one of them wrote in a follow-up questionnaire: “It is amazing that such help exists, I do not think I would have gone to see anybody [to get help] otherwise.”

It’s not your grandfather’s or your father’s PHS. More than three decades ago, PHS originated as the Impaired Physicians’ Committee of the MMS. We were a life raft for physicians with career-threatening alcoholism and drug addiction. These days, we endeavor to get involved and help out before your career is threatened by impaired performance, and our scope has expanded to include other mental disorders, non-psychiatric health conditions (such as subtle cognitive decline), and a variety of occupational health challenges. These occupational health challenges include stress, burn-out, work-life imbalance, unprofessional behavior, disorganization, and communication difficulties. Our recent review indicates that almost half of the 93 consecutive referrals were in this “occupational health” space. The remaining referrals were almost equally split between mental health challenges and substance-related problems, along with a handful of referrals that involved an underlying medical or neurological problem.

In summary, you are welcome to contact us at any time to confidentially discuss any concerns you have about your own health or the health of a colleague. We’ll do what we can to point you in a healthy direction by drawing on our experience helping the more than 2,600 other doctors and medical students who preceded you.

If you are interested in attending a PHS support group, please contact Physician Health Services at (781) 434-7404, or visit our website at

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