News spotlight: A taste of their own medicine

Figures show that drug and alcohol addiction is increasing within a medical profession renowned for failing to seek help when needed most. In light of this, a pilot practitioner health programme has opened in London, offering help to dentists and doctors who are under pressure…

It is easy to speculate why dentists are prime candidates for addiction problems. They work in high-pressured environments for long hours with little or no support. They manage their own businesses, balancing the demands of staff, financial targets and their patients – all contributing stress factors. Based on these facts alone, it’s perhaps of little surprise that addiction has become, for them, an occupational hazard.

Increasing numbers of highly stressed medical professionals are turning to drugs and alcohol as a solution or form of self-medication. And this is why the practitioner health programme was created. The new two-year pilot scheme is a confidential service for London-based doctors and dentists who have mental health or physical health concerns affecting their work – or an addiction of any severity.

Dr Clare Gerada is the medical director of the Practitioner Health Programme (PHP) that began seeing patients in September last year but was formally launched in November at an event attended by CDO Barry Cockcroft. 

It’s an NHS-funded project, running along the principles of general practice with access to secondary care on referral. In the spirit of the NHS, it is free at the point of delivery and no charges are made.

Its launch was the result of a paper – published by Department of Health in 2007 – that identified the need to improve arrangements that support health professionals in maintaining their own health and, if needed, in seeking confidential advice and treatment.

The idea for a prototype service was developed by a specialist working group and was then commissioned through National Clinical Assessment Service and the Chief Medical Officer following the Shipman Inquiry. But Dr Gerada is keen to flag up those who, from the beginning, were involved in the drive behind its inception.

She explains: ‘I think it was really the brainchild of concerned individuals and organisations that realised that doctors and dentists had very poor access to healthcare. The British Doctors’ and Dentists’ Group and Sick Doctors Trust in particular were instrumental in lobbying for the set-up of this service.’

Since its launch, the programme has been well received with referrals coming in from all fronts and, according to Dr Gerada, this proves how vital a service it is.

‘Dentists find it hard to access healthcare. They’re too busy… it’s the wrong time of day, etc. Plus, they have access to drugs and, as with doctors, can feel invisible,’ she explains.

‘The New Year is a particularly bad time – what with too much alcohol, too many relatives, too much time with one’s family and spending too much money they don’t have. Often, too much time surrounded by ‘happy’ people makes us realise how miserable we are and, coupled with a looming tax return, there’s the realisation they haven’t left enough to pay the bill.’

The service is specifically tailored to cater for the medical professional ¬– opening its doors six days a week and displaying a clear understanding of the constraints and problems of the small businessperson.

It also has a policy to encourage patients to share their problems with families.
Dr Gerada says: ‘We want patients to share very much so with family, if not with colleagues. I think when doctors and dentists become ill and begin to disclose, there is a cathartic process but cautions against feeling that you need to tell simply everyone.’

The programme also offers advice on what medical professionals need to  disclose to the Regulator and its website – – outlines the agreement the programme has with the General Dental Council (GDC) and General Medical Council (GMC).

Dr Gerada adds: ‘We are very happy to offer advice to dentists about when they need to inform their governing body.’

The helpline advice is open to colleagues, family and friends as well as to the dentists and doctors.
Dr Gerada adds: ‘There are other supportive services, such as the Dentists Health Support Programme and British Doctors and Dentists Group, but none are able to offer the comprehensive assessment and treatment packages that we are able to provide through the Practitioner Health Programme.’

There are plans to roll out the service to other parts of the UK and those involved will collate statistics on the numbers of medical professionals seeking help so they can evaluate the service in terms of outcomes, effectiveness and satisfaction.

With the wheels of its publicity machine already in motion – ‘We will be featuring in the next issue of the Chief Dental Officer’s bulletin and have also sent out flyers and information to every trust, individual practitioners and are staging a series of talks’ – the hope is that there will be practitioner health programmes supporting the profession throughout the UK very soon. As those in the know would argue, it’s a service that has taken a long time coming.

• The Practitioner Health Programme is at Riverside Medical Centre, Hobart House, St George Wharf, Wandsworth Road, Vauxhall, London SW8 2JB. Ring 0203 049 4505 or visit the website at

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