How Medical Boards May Negatively Impact Physician Mental Health

Doctor sitting on hospital bed behind curtainA new study found state medical boards may treat doctors with mental health conditions differently than those with physical health conditions. The study, published in the journal Society of Teachers of Family Medicine, suggests intrusive questions about mental health conditions may deter doctors from seeking treatment.

Previous research has found the high demands doctors experience can trigger higher rates of mental health conditions than in the general population. One study found 29% of new doctors have symptoms of depression. Another study found 11% of medical students experience thoughts of suicide.

Do Medical Boards Discriminate Against Doctors with Mental Health Conditions?

The study found state medical boards, which license physicians and assess their ability to remain physicians, were more likely to inquire about physicians’ history of mental health treatment than physical health treatment. Researchers found the questions were broad and intrusive, rather than focusing on whether a physician was capable of providing quality care.

In states where boards asked about both mental and physical health, physical health questions were vague. Boards typically wanted much more specific information about mental health conditions.

Katherine J. Gold, MD, MSW, MS, the study’s main author, led a study last year that inquired about the mental health history of 2,100 female doctors who were also mothers. Almost half said they thought they met diagnostic criteria for a mental health condition during their careers, but did not seek treatment. Two-thirds reported that fear of being reported to state medical boards or stigma kept them from seeking treatment. Most felt their mental health concerns had not affected their ability to provide quality care and treatment.

At minimum, Gold suggests board questions about mental health should comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of mental or physical health. Rather than drawing conclusions based solely on treatment history, Gold says, boards should only ask about potential impairments of current conditions. This prevents physicians from being penalized for sharing a past diagnosis for which they have already sought treatment.

New Resolutions to Support Physician Mental Health

Two new resolutions presented to the American Medical Association (AMA) aim to address physician mental health. The first resolution asks state licensing boards to treat mental health conditions like physical health conditions. The second encourages the study of medical students’ mental health, including gathering data on rates of depression and other mental health conditions.


  1. Firth, S. (2017, June 12). AMA told mental health DX still a stigma for docs. Retrieved from
  2. State medical licensing boards’ practices may hurt physician mental health. (2017, June 14). Retrieved from

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  • monroe

    June 21st, 2017 at 7:03 AM

    Just a thought- if there is even discrimination within the medical community itself then how can we expect that there wouldn’t be in the general public as a whole?

  • Reed

    June 22nd, 2017 at 6:41 AM

    and this is the very reason why people don’t seek out treatment

  • Audrey

    June 25th, 2017 at 5:59 PM

    I always try to give everyone that I meet the benefit of the doubt. If they have had a problem in the past then the way that I see it is that it was in the past, they have gotten help, and what business is it really of mine to know all about all of those things anyway? We are a society that has this need to know way too much about other people and the only thing that this is doing is leading to a lot more hurt for a lot more people. They are being judged for things that have no bearing on who or what they do today.

  • Caitlin

    July 6th, 2017 at 5:44 PM

    So true! My best friend just wrote a book , Manic Kingdom, about her epic breakdown during medical school– and it only got WORSE b/c of the stigma of seeking help. She ended up almost getting murdered- twice. That said, she’s also brilliant- and her book discusses how traditional mental health care fails us all, and how she found “cures” in the most unlikely places. Honestly, it should be required reading. We have to crush the stigma– fear of stigma makes mental health problems worse & creates less reliable doctors. Anyhow, please check this out– I think anyone who reads this article will dig this book.

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