July 12. 2004 6:01AM
Local doctor helping physicians beat drugs
Picture Dr. Ken Thompson

Dr. Ken Thompson is the medical director of the Florida Recovery Center, located at Shands at Vista, an 81-bed psychiatric facility off NW 39th Avenue.



FYI: Where to get help

A medical professional who is battling dependency on drugs and alcohol can contact:

  • Their Physician
  • The Florida Recovery Center at Shands at Vista, a psychiatric facility operated
         by Shands HealthCare, (352) 265-5497
  • The Professional Resource Network, (800) 888-8776
    Sun medical writer

    Dr. Ken Thompson uses his experience as a former addict to help others.

    When the news broke over the July 4 weekend that Vice President Dick Cheney's personal physician was battling an addiction to prescription narcotics, the details were eerily familiar to Dr. Ken Thompson in Gainesville.

    Dr. Gary Malakoff of prestigious George Washington University Medical Center had been referred for treatment of a suspected addiction in 1999. Malakoff is just one of an estimated 4 to 6 percent of doctors who become hooked on drugs (and as many as 15 percent on alcohol) during the course of their working lives.

    Thompson is another.

    The 53-year-old physician is the medical director of the Florida Recovery Center, located at Shands at Vista, an 81-bed psychiatric facility off NW 39th Avenue. He is also a recovering addict who walked the bumpy road to recovery himself.

    Last week, Thompson appeared on "Good Morning America" to talk about the price some health care professionals doctors, nurses, pharmacists pay to beat their own addictions. He has treated more than 10,000 patients who suffer from chemical dependency, and more than 1,700 were in health care.

    The 1977 graduate of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia said he shares his story in order to help others.

    It began in his first year of medical school, Thompson said, when he was given Percodan, an opiate, to ease the pain of a kidney stone. It gave him, he recalls, "The most wonderful feeling I'd ever had."

    When a relative passed away in his last year of medical school, leaving behind several bottles of Percodan, Thompson appropriated them, "just to take every now and then."

    That quickly escalated to everyday use, he said.

    "By the time I entered my residency, I had devised all sorts of devious ways to get meds, from writing my own prescriptions to forging prescriptions in other people's names," Thompson said.

    He kept seeking more drugs just to cover the terrible withdrawal symptoms he suffered. In 1979, he was arrested for prescription fraud.

    That wasn't where he bottomed out, however. He completed his residency and moved to Florida with his family to practice as an internist, but couldn't escape the pull of the drugs.

    "People would probably have said I was a great doctor, but my home life was falling apart," he admits. "I was a bad husband, absent and irritable. I wasn't available to my kids."

    Eventually, the toppling dominoes crashed into his practice and the state of Florida intervened. He entered a recovery program and now dates his sobriety from Feb. 22, 1987.

    "I had an awful lot of shame," he said. "It was bad enough being an addict, but being a physician-addict what would people think of me?"

    Thompson said in working with addicted professionals, the last place to where their drug use becomes apparent is the workplace. Their home life can be catastrophic, their finances can be terrible, but they will maintain their practice. On the outside it looks good.

    "Addiction is not the result of life problems, but rather the cause. It requires treatment that specifically addresses the addiction," he said. "I was blessed that the treatment providers who cared for me understood that."

    For nurses seeking help, there is the Intervention Project for Nurses, and for physicians, the Professional Resource Network, or PRN. The doctor who contacts PRN will be evaluated for chemical dependency, and a course of treatment recommended. They are guaranteed confidentiality at least at this point.

    They will be followed, usually for five years, Thompson said. They will attend weekly group sessions and submit to random drug screening. If they don't follow through, they can be reported to the Department of Health. That puts their professional license in jeopardy.

    Between July 1 of last year and this June 30, 16 physicians and 147 nurses in Florida had an emergency suspension or restriction of their license or an administrative complaint filed against them due to drug or alcohol impairment, according to Department of Health figures.

    "Then the administrative hand of the law comes down, they are investigated, and it becomes public knowledge," Thompson said.

    The prognosis for doctors in the program is good, according to Thompson. Studies show that more than 90 percent of physicians maintain their sobriety after first-time treatment over a five-year period.

    Physicians are not allowed to work if they have an untreated alcohol or drug problem, even if they show no signs of impairment, Thompson explained. If they complete treatment, show no findings of impairment and have sufficient coping skills and a support network to maintain their sobriety, they are allowed to return to work.

    "The hammer and the carrot make the difference," he said. "Participate and you get to keep your license, but you have to follow the plan. If you lose your license, you lose your career."

    Thompson spent five months in treatment, then worked in a warehouse before returning to work as a physician in an emergency care center. He was monitored for five years, with restrictions that included not being able to write prescriptions for some kinds of drugs.

    In 1989, he entered the growing field of addiction medicine and in 1999 joined the University of Florida College of Medicine's psychiatry department as an associate professor.

    The lesson to be learned from his story, he says, is this: Doctors have difficulty asking for help, but addiction is a very treatable illness.

    "It is the exception to the rule when a physician who goes through treatment doesn't return to work."