Is your doctor struggling with addiction? Missouri should do more to answer that question

Despite saying many of the right things about the horrors of the opioid epidemic, Gov. Eric Greitens’ actions have not matched the fervor of his words.
Despite saying many of the right things about the horrors of the opioid epidemic, Gov. Eric Greitens’ actions have not matched the fervor of his words. TNS

In Missouri, five people have the power to decide if a doctor is mentally and emotionally fit to practice medicine, to operate on patients, to write prescriptions.

These five gatekeepers can give the go-ahead for doctors to rehang their shingles and treat the sick — including doctors with documented histories of prescription drug addiction, alcoholism and felony records.

Last month, they did just that. The Missouri Board of Registration for the Healing Arts reinstated the licenses of two doctors — one in St. Louis and another in the northeastern part of the state — who have backgrounds that include felony convictions and addictions.

Nine members are supposed to sit on the state board: eight doctors and one member of the public. But four slots sit vacant, yet another example of former Gov. Jay Nixon failing to make appointments to boards and commissions.

Fully staffing the board is on Gov. Eric Greitens’ to-do list.

But the Greitens administration has other concerns about this pared-down version of the board of registration.

Randall Williams, the director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, is leading an analysis of the board’s previous decisions. So far, they’ve determined that Missouri has been disciplining at lower rates than nearby states, possibly a red-flag signaling lax oversight.

Last year, 58 physicians were disciplined in Missouri. That’s 2.23 doctors per 1,000. Compare that to the national average of 5.43 per 1,000 physicians.

A review conducted by The Star of disciplinary actions by the Missouri Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs found one-third of doctors identified for writing questionable prescriptions were taking the drugs themselves.

The rate of addiction among doctors is higher than in the general population. About 5 to 10 percent of the general public is addicted. But among doctors, it’s 10 to 15 percent. Stress and access to medications are among among the causes.

The stark figures highlight the importance of having a fully staffed state board that can identify troubled doctors and get them help before they cause harm to themselves or their patients.

A half-staffed state board, a history of infrequently disciplining doctors and high rates of addiction in the physician ranks are cause for concern for Missourians.

Greitens should act quickly. By making appointments to the board and implementing other needed changes, the governor can show that his administration is serious about fighting addiction and ensuring that doctors are fit to practice medicine.

Missourians shouldn’t have to worry about whether their doctor has an addiction or a criminal history.