Why are doctors dying in physician health programs?

(Video above & full transcript below)

When I read The Guardian article, “US surgeons are killing themselves at an alarming rate. One decided to speak out,” I felt like throwing up.

I’m sickened so many surgeons are dying. I’m grateful Dr. Cunningham is speaking out. I’m relieved she is alive.

But I felt nauseated that Carrie Cunningham’s pain is being used to tout physician “health” programs (PHPs) as the solution to physician suicide while these programs have actually led to doctor suicides.

Since 2012, I’ve run a free doctor suicide helpline. I spent thousands of hours listening to the hidden suffering of my peers.

Although some doctors with true substance use disorders find PHPs lifesaving, others die by suicide in these programs—yet I cannot find any major media articles on these dead physicians.

I know 23 doctors who died in these so-called health programs. None can speak out. None can respond to this article. So, on their behalf, I must.

Standing on the red carpet to deliver my TEDMED talk, Why doctors kill themselves—I was introduced as the “Physician’s Guardian Angel.” So I cannot remain silent when my peers suffer injustice.

One week before The Guardian article debuted, I detailed how PHP abuses have led to doctor suicides in a letter to the Department of Justice, published in its entirety below:

* * *

September 17, 2023

Attention: Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division

Today is National Physician Suicide Awareness Day, and I wish to make you aware of doctor suicides resulting from Title II ADA violations by medical licensing boards (MLBs) and their exclusively authorized and contracted physician health programs (PHPs).

MLB-PHP violations are many—impermissible inquiry, discriminatory medical exams, excessive testing, lack of individualized case analysis, refusal of accommodations, to name a few.

But I’m not writing to call your attention to a list of violations. I’m writing to speak for those who no longer can: 23 compassionate, competent, dedicated doctors whose deaths were directly related to willful violations of law by PHPs, both empowered and immunity-protected by their state medical boards.

In 2012, after three doctor suicides in my town, I urged local reporters to cover these tragedies. They refused. Outraged, I felt compelled to investigate this alarming phenomenon on my own.

Since then, I’ve run a free physician suicide helpline. I’ve heard from countless US physicians who became suicidal under the “care” of a PHP. Mistreatment so unfathomable, I was in disbelief—until others reported the same tactics employed by their state PHPs.

A few common themes:

Physicians forced into PHP evaluations following anonymous, unsubstantiated tips (often retaliatory) with no avenue to explore or appeal allegations of disability or impairment.

PHPs endorsing unfounded diagnoses of substance misuse via non-FDA-approved, non-SAMHSA-condoned drug tests known for false positive results.

Physicians with no history of drug/alcohol use automatically enrolled in costly out-of-state inpatient faith-based abstinence programs—followed by five years of drug monitoring and AA attendance.

Nonphysician bureaucrats recklessly endangering doctors’ lives by overriding their established psychiatrist’s treatment plan with PHP “one-size-fits-all” protocols.

To keep their medical license, doctors must “voluntarily” agree to travel out-of-state to “PHP-preferred” facilities where they may be interrogated via polygraph during a 4-day multidisciplinary evaluation for up to $10,000 cash (no insurance accepted).

Physicians who cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars to these for-profit “PHP-preferred” rehabs get reported to their board as “noncompliant,” usually resulting in license revocation with automatic entry into National Practitioner Data Bank, rendering the physician unemployable.

MLBs then publicly disclose physicians’ disability-related license revocation, HIPAA-protected health information (detailing unsupported, yet unchallengeable misdiagnoses)—all published on the World Wide Web in perpetuity.

I’ve twice implored Oregon Medical Board (OMB) to track doctor suicides in our state. They refused. While touting their success in self-funded unverifiable “studies,” state PHPs also lack transparency, failing to investigate their own physician suicides.

Legitimate accredited health facilities are required to report suicides as sentinel events to Joint Commission, perform internal case analysis, and correct deficiencies. The MLB-PHP complex behaves as if it is above the law—refusing to disclose suicide incidence, declaring “study participants lost to follow-up” while concealing rights deprivations contributing to their deaths.

Distraught by OMB’s refusal to collect doctor suicide data while my peers were dying in board-ordered PHPs known for mishandling physician mental health and impairment allegations, I began tracking these doctor suicides.

I’ve now catalogued 23 PHP suicides by name, date, specialty, location, method of death, and circumstances. For in-depth documentation (including video interviews with PHP victims and their family members in the aftermath of these doctor suicides), please contact me.

* * *

I thank Christina Frangou for her compelling article on Dr. Cunningham—a stellar surgeon who was never a danger to her patients. No wonder she wanted to throw up when the PHP declared her “unfit” to practice medicine and mandated years of random testing for drugs she’d never done in her life.

PHPs claim to counter the “myth that illness automatically means impairment,” while concurrently labeling competent physicians as “impaired.” Forcing physicians to abandon thousands of patients endangers the lives of doctors—and their patients (who have also died by suicide).

As an award-winning journalist specializing in health, medicine, and social issues, you’ll likely be disturbed by the dark side of the forced physician rehab industry that makes millions off the suffering of our vulnerable doctors.

I respectfully request a follow-up piece about doctors who have died in physician health programs. Their voices deserve to be heard.

Thank you.

Pamela Wible, M.D.

View TV Investigative Report: Doctors fear PHPs—why physicians won’t ask for help

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47 comments on “Why are doctors dying in physician health programs?
  1. Keith Frederick, D.O. says:

    Dr Wible,
    By speaking out on this issue you give voice to all our colleagues who were abused by these PHP’s but were simply unable to expose the incompetence, and in desperation took their own lives. This is so tragic. While I was Chairman of the Committee on Health and Mental Health Policy in the Missouri House of Representatives, I was contacted by several physicians who described similar experiences as you’ve
    described. PHPs need to be accountable for their decisions regarding physicians who end up subject to their requirements. When physicians present a lecture at a medical meeting they must disclose any conflicts of interest prior to the presentation. At a minimum, PHPs should be required to disclose any conflicts of interest prior to imposing requirements on physicians referred to them. PHP actions/ requirements should also be reviewed by a third party or organization on a regular basis. In addition, physicians should be able to access the care they need from any qualified physician or psychologist in their state, saving tens of thousands of dollars often preventing bankruptcy and therefore possibly preventing suicide as well.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Oh Keith it is great to hear from you again! Been a while and YES you are 💯 correct that these conflicts of interest need to be known by the unsuspecting victims of these operations that claim they are voluntary and confidential (unless those enrolled run out of money to pay their fees and often because they cannot practice they lose their license and spiral into poverty and sometimes death by suicide).

  2. Paul Golden MD says:

    Fantastical. I would add a paragraph about physicians who have licenses revoked by the PHP/MLB bedfellows and have lived in misery for the rest of their lives unable to find employment. Many end up in bankruptcy and existential house arrest with no money to enjoy life.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Reminds me of this investigative TV report on this doctors who spiraled into poverty due to PHP scheme (and worsened his depression!) — Doctor left destitute after seeking help from physician health program

    • MARIA SINDOS, D.O. says:

      I surrendered my medical license and followed all the mandates set forth by our physician committee. The PHP in my state constantly found reasons that I should not appear before the medical board for the reissue of my license.

      By the time my license was reinstated, 11 years had passed. As I had predicted, I could not get a job. Fellowships would not even accept me into their programs.

      These PHP/Med Board bureaucrats have no moral compasses whatsoever.

      • Pamela Wible MD says:

        Did they offer you anything helpful? Or did you find all their interventions harmful to your health and/or your career?

  3. Stan Spraitzar says:

    Speaking out for those of the Hippocratic Oath who can not speak for themselves. This medical rehab conspiracy needs to be dismantled entirely so that Doctors do not suffer the pain and humiliation that currently exists.

  4. Mark Ibsen MD says:

    Dr Michael Chase of Eureka Mt.
    Came to me for a medical cannabis card. He told me of his troubles with the board of medicine. He had been accused of using cannabis by the lover of his wife. She is also a family doctor and theyhad four children together.
    The wife had affair with a border patrol agent. He’s the one that filed a complaint against Dr. Chase with the board of medicine. I knew that he was in trouble. I was compassionate with him and approved his medical marijuana card. Two weeks later, he hung himself I believe he died due to shame and threats, and Shakespearean levels of betrayal and miscommunication.

    Pam, you know my story, the PHP nearly killed me too

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Ugh! Just so upsetting!! Yet common.

      “PHPs remain largely non-compliant with ADA laws and regulatory guidelines in assessing medical and psychiatric fitness of physicians,” reports an occupational medicine specialist. They receive revenue from contracts with physician employers and residency programs plus referred medical students/physicians who pay costly out-of-pocket fees or risk career destruction. Physician employers liberally refer to PHPs for virtually any reason. PHPs even encourage third-party referrals. Aggrieved spouses, jilted lovers, market competitors have all successfully required PHP evaluations of physicians.”

  5. farah ferrer says:

    I can not believe how much mistreatment physicians get for treatable conditions or others, even lying about a physician condition!!! what is going on ?? is it pen… envy ?, is it pure revenge or what!!.
    Thank you Dr Wible.
    I am here to support you in your life call or to any physician that needs psychiatric help for this horrible mistreatment.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      “Physicians are treated as criminals and tracked more closely than Level III sex offenders,” reports a general surgeon. “Answering all these questions on applications, the subtle, unspoken lesson is ‘you had better be squeaky clean, mentally, morally and physically! If you step off the shining path, bad things will occur.’ I have known 7 male physicians who died by suicide. Most with a ‘happy’ exterior. Why? They cannot confide in colleagues for fear that their colleagues will turn them in to hospitals and boards—and there goes their privileges and livelihood. They cannot confide in their spouses because during rough patches mentally, their marriages are already in trouble. If they share psychological problems, they probably fear that the wife may use this as ammunition in any future divorce. So they keep on smiling—right up to the hour they die.”

  6. Anonymous PHP victim says:

    These programs are in violation of the ADA. They will publicly disclose–even via press release—that lead to major media coverage and public shaming of any doctor who does not comply with their methods. These are bureaucrats practicing medicine without a license—which is MALPRACTICE. Huge scam. All for the big thick wallet biopsy. They truly do not care about physician health. They do not care about doctors whio become suicidal and die in their programs.

    How about all their psychiatrists who are fishing for their next PHP referral clients (and getting kickbacks)?

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      100%. Example of the community fishing expedition for vulnerable physicians:

      “After the unexpected death of a patient, I sought counseling. By a stroke of (bad) luck, I picked the only one in town in charge of impaired physician monitoring. He told the board (though stable) I should be ‘monitored.’ I had to defend myself in front of the Florida board. They laughed in my face and then posted in the local newspapers that I was sentenced to 5 yrs of monitoring. I had mandatory Wednesday group therapy. Though I was an exemplary physician, my employers had to be told why I was unavailable for call every Wednesday. Each time I (re)credential with hospitals, I must explain the whole thing again. HIPAA for me does not exist. I have never missed a single day of work for mental health.

  7. MZ says:

    What about racism?

  8. PHP Physician says:

    Thank you so much Dr. Wible. As I am still in contract with a PHP, I have concern about speaking publicly. I’ve been able to keep clear license as the primary breadwinner, I can’t afford to lose my job/license status.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      No need to speak publicly. I do think it would be healing for you to be honest with yourself about the human rights violations you have sustained in these runaway programs without medical oversight (except for folks directly profiteering off your pain). Do reach out to me privately here. I would love to speak with anyone who has been injured by “health” programs that “specialize” in physicians.

  9. PHPBS says:

    Regarding Jay Neufeld who was killed by the PHP in Idaho (via Pine Gove Behavioral Health in Mississippi) . . . it brought back memories when I too ended up shockingly being given a choice between calling for an evaluation as an “impaired physician “ and accepting a contract I didn’t want to sign, then ending up isolated from my family for months in a program just like the one described. I’m heartbroken for this family and the patients who lost their loving, committed physician.

  10. Brent says:

    Wow!! This is an incredible article! I’ve forwarded it on to the politician that I have the attention of.

  11. Meena Murti says:

    Full investigation and criminal charges should be filed against these medical boards who are fabricating information to tear down physicians out of jealousy or something more sinister.

    It’s an abuse of power.

  12. Derrick Mobley says:

    Physicians who cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars to these for-profit “PHP-preferred” rehabs get reported to their board as “noncompliant,” usually resulting in license revocation with automatic entry into National Practitioner Data Bank, rendering the physician

    This is EXACTLY what happened to me. NO MONEY = NO MEDICAL LICENSE

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Derrick, I would really love to invite you to join us tomorrow for our support group full of docs who have suffered similarly. Would you be willing to join us as an honored guest? I’ll email you now.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Derrick, I just saw your email: “My decision to VOLUNTARILY contact my state’s PHP was the WORST decision I could have made for my career and mental health issue back in 1993. I am glad someone is finally looking into PHP abusive and discriminatory practices. I lost my medical licenses because of them.”

      I am going to text you now & call you in the morning.

  13. Kimberly Legg Corba, DO says:

    Thank you for your unrelenting fight, Pamela Wible! Your mission has not wavered and your focus is indestructible. I can’t imagine how many physician lives you have saved already. Strength and hugs to you. Kimberly Legg Corba, DO

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      My focus is indestructible. Total obsession. We must eradicate this widespread injustice against humanitarians who are hurting due to primarily occupational-induced mental health issues that are then monetized by these state-sanctioned “health” programs.

  14. Vyshnavi Desiraju says:

    What an eye-opening piece. Thank you for all that you do Dr Pam, we are so grateful to have you as an advocate, an icon and a mentor and I hope to be able to carry the torch alongside you!
    This is why it is SO important to have an independent 3rd party organisations who has a vested interest in physician wellbeing, and to be that trusted safe space. Because KPIs or other metrics set by PHPs and healthcare institutions is NOT helping, but even exacerbating the problem quite ironically.
    Would be really interested in having a panel discussion about actionable steps we can take together as a healthcare community🙏

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Please reach out to me here as I would love to speak with you. We have a Sunday group that meets specifically to address actionable steps we can take together as a healthcare community to help one another and prevent these atrocities.

  15. Discouraged Doc says:

    I was volunteered to a Wellness Committee on the West Coast 20 years ago. It was led and still is by one psychiatrist.

    When one physician was discussed who was struggling with depression, derogatory remarks were made regarding her prescription for Prozac. I did not stay long on that committee!

    Years later at a Psychiatry conference, the same doctor joked about finding Adderall samples helpful when he had lots of paper work. Omg. No one flinched with that comment but me.

    It’s a crazy, unproductive and harmful system.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      I’ll never look at psychiatrists (like my mom) the same way after reading: Children of Psychiatrists and Other Psychotherapists. Answered all my childhood confusion about the contradictory behavior of those who claim to be experts in the field of understanding human emotions.

      Hint: these people are wounded. Many of their wounds are encapsulated and hidden even from themselves (a dangerous combo).

  16. Llorens Pembrook MD says:

    Please refer this article to 60 Minutes.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Please do pass this one to whomever you know in the media and/or upload to their “tip” line or story idea submission system. 💕🙏

  17. Steven A. Reid, M.D. says:

    Thanks for keeping up the good fight!

    I’ve known several physicians who were involved with the PHP system. Sadly, most of these programs owe their evolutionary DNA to drug and alcohol rehabilitation models. Many of them tend to foster shame and guilt among their clients. My friends who were involved locally appeared beaten down and humiliated. The implicit assumption behind these programs is that some kind of moral deficiency or lack of resiliency is the root cause of the physician’s problem. They assume the fault lies with the physician, and not with the aloof, unfeeling bureaucracy in which doctors find themselves.

    The system is highly lucrative, and it doesn’t want to change.

    The general public remains ignorant on this issue, because the victims of the more unscrupulous PHPs rationally are keeping quiet in order to keep their jobs.

    This scenario strongly contributes to the culture of physicians suffering in silence.

    Greed, hubris, ignorance, and inertia have corrupted many PHPs, and sadly many other well meaning institutions as well.

    Remember, you have many allies of which you are unaware. Seek them.

    • Pamela Wible MD says:

      Most physicians (99.9%) are also ignorant to this travesty (unless they are victims of the PHP)

      • Dr. Pink Cloud says:

        Ergo, what are we supposed to do to let the public know and change the system? I survived 5 years of the PHP and the demeaning process my employer put me through after my issues came to light. Rather than proving help I was shamed and when I resisted I was labeled with farce “poor prognosis” diagnoses by the rehab the PHP forced me too (shocker– five years later and I am doing just fine, no thanks to them at all). I was a poor prognosis because I refused to take Vivitrol or stay on their facility for an excessive 90 days, which my insurance agreed with when I called to question criteria for ongoing payment approval of my stay– again shocker, I DID NOT MEET IT, which is why I was “routinely discharged” after 28 days….with a “poor prognosis” lol. Do they often discharge people home who are a poor prognosis 2 months earlier than planned? Guess so. Im one year away from finishing a fellowship so Ive had to be quiet but inside I have been fuming for five years trying to figure out how to fix this. Someone please give ideas rather than just venting on message boards. Please.

  18. Jason Gamez says:

    Thank you Dr. Wible, for your mission to protect our uniquely vulnerable collective team of individuals committed to save lives. You are special. A huge Thank You for all your work and passion. From all those friends we have lost and all alive working through these hard times… we thank you. We RESPECT YOU. We love you.

  19. DKM says:

    My decision to VOLUNTARILY contact my state’s PHP was the WORST decision I could have made for my career and mental health isssue . . . I am glad someone is finally looking into PHP abusive and discriminatory practices. I lost my medical licenses because of them.

  20. Scared-Doc says:

    Thank you for what you’re doing to raise awareness of all the psychological, mental, physical, and financial duress these PHP program monitoring and state boards are placing on us as providers. It’s absolutely horrible and I wish I had the financial means to fight the discrimination and isolating stigma that is felt amongst us. Please keep me informed and included as I struggle through the process but too scared to try and change anything for fear of having my license revoked. I am a single mother with small children. I’m still extremely scared and traumatized by the entire situation to openly share. Our only well being program “monitor” is anything but supportive. Nothing is supervised by an actual physician. We are all at the mercy of the one woman who runs the well being program and it’s scary. The board has us appear every six months and it’s public record. It’s absolutely humiliating. It’s isolating. I am still trying to process even now. I just know I truly appreciate what you’re doing and I hope to help join the movement when I know there will not be repercussions.

  21. Jenny Sheehan says:

    strong work Pam!!🥰
    keep up your true calling – you ARE an angel🙏

  22. ACGME Abuse says:

    Thank you Dr. Wible for everything you do. I watched your TedTalk also and you are absolutely right – the system does not change until the public stands up and forces them to change. We need leaders like you. Unfortunately, this physician abuse also exists in GME. These programs and institutions have enormous power and unlimited resources against a single resident like me.

  23. Physician in Chicago says:

    I was forced by my employer to undergo an “independent evaluation” through a PHP program after a mental health leave of absence. Following this evaluation, I was diagnosed as having a substance use disorder despite the fact that I do not use drugs. I was required to undergo INPATIENT RESIDENTIAL treatment or lose my job. I was required to attend Marijuana Anonymous meetings 4 times per week and submit to monitoring for 5 years. The residential treatment had to be conducted by the PHP program and the monitoring had to be through the monitoring group the PHP referred to. Neither of these accepted insurance and the out of pocket costs were nearly 6 figures. The PHP evaluation also did not even mention any mental health issues, which was the reason for my evaluation in the first place. This PHP evaluation has caused me to lose my job and attempt suicide. I pray that these PHP programs be brought to justice.

  24. Terrified of PHP says:

    Thank you for bringing this to light!! Pine grove is the worst place anyone could go to…their claim to fame is a golf professional having been there. They are racist and their tactics alone will drive you to want to hurt yourself. They basically threaten you.
    The PHP can be helpful to a few bc to say all would be misleading but their approach is guilty and try to prove innocence- which you never can do. MLB violates your rights in ever level, if any other provider did that we would be sued. But they share all your personal medical and mental health for the world to see and judge.
    I’m in the PHP and all I can do is do as they say and hope someone is willing to give me a shot.
    Maryland here!

  25. Michael says:

    I couldn’t agree more that many state PHP’s are dangerous – to one’s career and mental health. With my own story, I have been followed by the Virginia program (toxic at times) and Maryland (pretty damn wonderful). And I just want to add that while many are “bad”, some are not. I would readily recommend people do their “homework” before engaging with one. And I can only really vouch for the Maryland PHP which has been absolutely helpful, supportive, protective, and even proactive toward keeping me healthy, “happy”, and functional. They actually have checked on me to make sure I was good when something suggested otherwise. They are not associated directly with the state board, and that clearly sets them apart from Virginia. I’ve heard many horror stories, and agree many are terrible in multiple ways. But I feel compelled to also say that in Maryland’s case this just isn’t true.

    It’s hard to know who you can turn to when things are serious. Some with no life/professional experience might “turn you in” to the local psych service or PHP (or board!). But sometimes there are those of us who “get it” and are safe to turn to for help. I’ve done this more than a few times for residents, nurses, and junior “staff” docs along the way to help support them and get them back on their feet (without referring them elsewhere). I know it’s hard to come by that kind of support sometimes. Even though I know about the downsides, when *I* needed help I was too overwhelmed to remember what to do for myself and my career, so now I have even more experience to draw upon.

    As always – I love what you do for folks (like me). Keep up the great work. I really believe you’re saving lives.

    -Dr. Mike

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