July 29, 2015

Founded in 1995, the Ontario Medical Association’s Physician Health Program, or PHP, helps doctors with alcohol and drug addictions.

Dr. Sam Smith, not his real name, as we agreed to protect his identity, started attending the PHP in 2010, because of a marijuana addiction. A practicing family physician now, Smith celebrated six years of abstinence in February.

When he started residency in 2010, Smith was referred to the PHP because of a question on his application for licensure with the College about previous problems with alcohol, or drugs, which he answered ‘yes’ to.

In fact, Smith was given his medical license on the condition that he enroll with the PHP.

“Most people would just answer ‘no,’” he says. “All through medical school I evaded the truth about how much I was using when I was flagged for failing exams. That question about substance use on the residency application gave me a chance for a fresh start by being truthful. I was told by the PHP that it was ‘refreshingly honest’ [because most] people don’t come into recovery until they’re discovered,” says Smith.

“Either they’re caught taking drugs from work, or they’re hung over, or intoxicated, or they get a DUI, or a colleague will call the PHP, or the College, [to] make a complaint.”

Although a proactive process in the end, getting here has been a long journey for Smith.

“In Ontario, the usual [agreement] with the PHP is five years,” says Smith. “For most people, they recommend urine monitoring, seeing an addiction doctor and sometimes a psychiatrist as well. They also generally recommend an in-patient treatment program and attending Caduceus, a group of health-care professionals with addictions.”

Smith says it has been a positive experience. He has a new contract now, after moving to another province, and will be finished mandatory monitoring soon. As with many physicians in recovery, however, he intends to continue his addiction treatment afterwards.

“The overwhelming thing for me in my recovery was someone [who] said, ‘You have to give up control to get back control,’” he says. “Over time, I really learned what that meant, which was that when you’re in active addiction, or even recovering, but still trying to do everything on your own, or do things your own way, it can be really problematic.”

Smith considers the PHP’s support instrumental in his successful recovery.

“It’s been really helpful for me to have the PHP to say, ‘No. This is what we want you to do. We want you to have all these things in place to keep yourself and the public safe in case you relapse,’” he says.

Based on Smith’s experience, one has to buy into the program, by trusting the people who are there to help you.

“For the first time in my life, I had all these different areas of support and fail-safes to protect me from using, [which] really, really helped.”

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