Jeff Rossen and Charlie McLravy, The TODAY Show
We trust doctors with our lives. They’re supposed to take care of us. But physicians are only human.
Government studies indicate at least 100,000 doctors—or about one in 10 currently working—is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some are performing surgeries while stoned, injuring and even killing unsuspecting patients, according to TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen, who found numerous cases of doctors busted for substance abuse.
“There are doctors out there right now under the influence of prescription narcotics as we speak, putting patients at risk,” said Dr. Stephen Loyd, a Tennessee doctor speaking from personal experience.
“At my worst I was doing 100 pills a day, Vicodin mainly,” all while seeing patients, he told Rossen. Loyd, who has been clean for 10 years, said it still scares him to think about that period in his life.
“It’s very frightening. Frightening for me to talk about it with you right now,” he said.
An internist who worked in a hospital emergency room, Loyd said he found it easy to score narcotics. He had easy access and nearly all of his friends are doctors, several of whom wrote him prescriptions for the pills.
“Truth of the matter is, my patients didn't know I was using,” he said.
Loyd said he’s never been accused of harming a patient while stoned. But other doctors have.
Dr. Christopher Duntsch once billed himself as “the best neurosurgeon in Dallas.” That’s not what many of his former patients think.
Jeff Cheney went in for what he says Duntsch told him was a routine back surgery. He woke up partially paralyzed.
“It's my understanding he was under the influence while performing surgeries,” Cheney asserted.
Cheney claims Duntsch was stoned while operating on him and removed part of his spinal cord.
“He turned me from a strong, healthy man into a crippled man,” he said.
A dozen other patients allege Duntsch botched their surgeries, too, turning some into paraplegics and others into quadriplegics, confining them to wheelchairs.
According to lawsuits, two patients died after Duntsch operated on them. In a recent deposition, one of Duntsch's assistants testified the doctor often drank at work and stashed vodka under his desk. Another witness, a friend, described Duntsch's drug use.
“There’s been LSD; there’s been cocaine,” the friend said in the deposition.
Duntsch denies wrongdoing, but when asked under oath whether he had ever been under the influence of drugs while caring for a patient, he repeatedly cited the Fifth Amendment.
Duntsch declined Rossen's request for an interview. He also did not answer the door when approached at his Dallas home, although he later called Rossen on the phone. He wouldn't allow the conversation to be recorded, and he denied ever taking drugs or alcohol before performing surgery.
Duntsch has not been charged with a crime, and the state medical board did not find any evidence he was on drugs or alcohol during surgeries. His license was revoked because he “violated the standard of care.”
While there is no federal law on the issue, the problem of doctors on drugs has become so bad that lawmakers in California have proposed a law that would require random drug testing of any doctor with hospital privileges. Drug testing also would be required after major mistakes, such as "preventable deaths." The proposed law is modeled after the Federal Aviation Administration's drug testing program for airline pilots.
Loyd, the internist who used to score drugs from his fellow physicians, said doctors need to own up to their mistakes and take responsibility.
“I’m not saying that there's not consequences," Loyd said. “If I’ve harmed a patient and a patient sees this interview and figures I harmed them, then there'll be a price for me to pay for that.”
But he said he'll be ready if that happens.
“Part of getting better with addictive disease is owning the mistakes of the past,” he said.