Follow our simple guide on what to do if you are concerned about a medical colleague and their state of physical or mental health.
Worrying signs to look for
What to do about your concerns
Next steps to take
Sources of help
Sometimes it is obvious. A colleague's physical health could be hampered by a broken limb meaning they would be unlikely to continue their surgical list, and would need to take sick leave or adapt their practice for a period of time.
However some conditions can be more difficult, both to identify and assess. Some of those conditions are highlighted below along with examples.
Signs of depression or other mental ill health
Depression or bipolar disorder are relatively common mental health problems, and occur in doctors like the rest of the population. While the signs may be subtle, for both the individual and their colleagues, the effects on patients may be very significant.
You may notice that your usually efficient registrar seems unable to get through the weekly clinic, and has become irritable and brusque with the clinic staff. You suspect they were tearful when you queried their management of a patient.
A consultant seems to have become over-confident, making rash decisions about patient management which are surprising and not in keeping with their usual calm and considered style.
Signs of addiction
It is difficult to think of a legitimate reason to smell of alcohol at work
Addiction can also occur and may be well hidden in an environment where access to drugs is greater and signs may be skilfully disguised.
It is difficult to think of a legitimate reason to smell of alcohol at work and the picture portrayed is likely to be a much more worrying one. Many people who misuse alcohol lack insight into both the misuse, and the effect of it on others.
A colleague who has been a bit distant with you recently, has now started to be late to teaching sessions and meetings, and seemed to be hiding something in their pocket when you came across them in the anaesthetic room. When you inquire you receive an angry and uninformative response.
Signs of chronic illness
You are worried your colleague may have a chronic problem such as Parkinson's disease. This could also have very practical implications on their ability to look after patients.
Loss of facial expression may mean that patients misinterpret your colleague's interactions with them. Tremor may interfere with using the computer accurately, or picking up instruments to use during examination. Minor surgery may already be impossible.
Impact on patients
If there are concerns that a doctor's health, physical or otherwise, may be affecting their ability to practice, it is vital for the doctor as well as the patients of your practice, that any problems are addressed sooner rather than later.
The worst possible outcome is to fail to take action until harm comes to a patient.
Doctors who develop health problems can often work safely, as long as they have insight into the limitations it implies for their working life.
Many doctors work for years with serious and chronic conditions. However, limiting their practice, or adapting the way they consult, may be necessary to ensure that patients are not put at risk.
So what action should you take if you are concerned that another doctor's health is compromising their ability to care for patients?