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Is your doctor drug tested? That depends on where he works

Many hospitals have drug-free policies for their employees. But doctors aren't always employees at the hospitals where they work.

Many southern California hospitals have anti-drug policies for their employees, but they don’t always drug test their physicians.

Revelations about frequent drug use recently helped bring down the dean of USC’s medical school, Dr. Carmen Puliafito. The scandal surrounding Puliafito raises questions about what local hospitals’ policies are on drug testing their providers.

KPCC reached out to a number of southern California’s large hospitals. Some provided their written policies. None provided an official for an interview.

The policy at L.A. County's public health department says county hospitals can drug test doctors if they suspect that drug use is affecting performance.

USC, where Dr. Puliafito was an eye doctor, has a drug-free policy, but it doesn’t mention drug testing.

Children’s Hospital Los Angeles drug tests new employees, including interns and residents. Senior physicians who are not on hospital staff can be tested if there is reason to believe their performance is impaired by substance abuse.

Huntington Hospital in Pasadena drug tests all new staff. But as is the case at many hospitals, the doctors at Huntington are not employees.

"Hospitals have to walk a very delicate line," says Dr. Jack Needleman, chair of UCLA’s department of health policy. "One the one hand, they are very dependent upon their physicians for admissions, and they want to maintain very strong relationships with their medical staff."

On the other hand, he says, "it’s very hard for a hospital to come out and say we are opposed to testing physicians for drugs or alcohol or other impairments, when that clearly may be an important component in keeping their patients safe."

It’s assumed that drug and alcohol use is a threat to patient safety, but ultimately, it’s not clear to what extent.

"We don’t know how much patients are threatened by drug or alcohol impairment by their physicians," says Needleman.

The issue of drug-testing of physicians went before California voters in 2014. Prop. 46 dealt with multiple issues, not just physician testing, and it ultimately failed. Among other things, the proposed measure would have imposed severe penalties on doctors with positive drug-test results, including making those results public.

The issue of drug-testing physicians is complicated, but "the value here is not to the institution and not to the physician, but ultimately to the patient," says Needleman.

Patients who suspect their doctor is practicing medicine under the influence of drugs or alcohol can file a complaint with the California Medical Board.