Many professional medical organizations ethically require doctors to report other doctors who are incompetent or impaired by substance abuse or mental health problems, but as one recent survey found, more than a third of doctors don't turn in their colleagues.
Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital surveyed nearly 3,000 doctors across multiple specialties, and of the almost 2,000 who responded, 31 percent objected to the idea that they should have a responsibility to report physicians who are incompetent or impaired.
The survey also found that 17 percent of doctors had encountered an impaired or incompetent colleague over the past three years, but only two-thirds of them actually turned those doctors in. Only 69 percent of doctors said they know how to go about reporting a compromised colleague.
Lead study author Catherine DesRoches of the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital told ABC News the fact that more than a third of physicians don't agree that they have a responsibility to report doctors with problems is a "signifcant number" she finds troubling.
"Self-regulation is the primary mechanism we use to make sure doctors that shouldn't be practicing are not practicing," said DesRoches. "That's a key to protecting patients."
"This is a very important study, because it reminds us that we're probably not doing what we should be doing," said Dr. Virginia Hood, president-elect of the American College of Physicians and professor of medicine at The University of Vermont School of Medicine.
"Our primary responsibility is always patient safety and what's in the best interest of the patient, and when it appears that we're not doing what we should be doing, it's a matter of great concern," she added.
Doctors who are members of underrepresented minority groups, graduates of foreign medical schools and doctors in smaller practices were less likely to report an impaired or incompetent fellow doctor.
There were three main reasons many doctors did not turn in their colleagues.
"Twenty-three percent believed someone else was taking care of the problem, 15 percent didn't think anything would happen and 12 percent feared retribution," said DesRoches.
The 36 percent of doctors who did not subscribe to reporting their colleagues included those who said they only "somewhat agreed" with their professional obligation to report compromised colleagues and also those who disagreed either somewhat or completely.
"We just took 'completely agrees' and lumped everyone else into a 'don't completely agree' group," said DesRoches.
The reason for that, she said, is because only complete agreement is considered to be consistent with ethical reporting standards set by professional medical societies.
She also acknowledged that if these doctors were lumped into the "agree" grouping, many more of them would have been in agreement with their ethical obligation to report an incompetent or impaired colleague.
In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Matthew Wynia of the American Medical Association's Institute for Ethics argued that the authors see the glass as half-empty.