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Can you lose your medical license over mental health concerns?

If the state licensing board has evidence that a doctor’s mental health may put patients at risk, the agency may take action to restrict their license to practice medicine. This scenario likely would come before the board if someone files a grievance that may trigger an investigation.

An experienced professional licensure defense attorney who knows the law and processes involved can fight to protect the doctor’s medical license. The lawyer may be able to negotiate a resolution with the licensing board or, if necessary, advocate for the doctor at a hearing or in court on appeal.

Mental health risks are real for doctors

Medical professionals have experienced unimaginable stress and trauma during COVID-19. But the pandemic actually exacerbated preexisting concerns about rising rates of mental health problems in the profession like anxiety and depression as well as of substance abuse, according to Missouri Medicine, The Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association. Not only are doctors’ rates increasing, but also they are already at a significantly higher level than those of the general population.

The Missouri article describes doctor hesitation to seek treatment for mental illness along with concern that employers or medical licensing boards will find out about their diagnoses. Unfortunately, burnout along with untreated anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges may lead to self-medication with alcohol or drugs, or worse.

And like anyone else, they may face organic mental health diagnoses or physical disorders that affect mental health. For example, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s or diabetes can all cause cognitive decline. Doctors age like the rest of us with associated memory or concentration problems.

So while it is true that medical professionals may need support and treatment for mental health concerns, it should not be assumed in any given situation that the doctor in question has a condition causing ethical concerns or patient risk. Each situation is unique, and each physician deserves careful consideration of such allegations.

Protect your license

Doctors in Kentucky and South Carolina (and across the country) know that mental health or substance abuse problems can make it harder to practice medicine safely. A related lapse in judgment or deviation from the proper standard of medical care has the potential to harm a patient.

However, physicians can be wrongly or mistakenly charged with practicing medicine with a mental health condition that raises safety concerns, or the charges may be exaggerated. While patient safety is paramount, a doctor has the legal right to defend themselves against such allegations to protect their license and career.

Kentucky and South Carolina physician licensing and discipline

In Kentucky, a patient or family member, colleague, government agency, health care employer or other party concerned that a doctor’s mental health might endanger patients can file a grievance with the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure (KBML), the state agency responsible for physician licensing.

Doctors must comply with the Kentucky Medical Practice Act or face potential discipline. The relevant grounds for a grievance for purposes of this discussion include “[i]mpairment of ability to practice due to drug or alcohol abuse, or due to physical or mental illness,” according to the KBML.

A grievance kicks off a complicated Board process involving:

  • Possible emergency suspension or restriction of license pending the grievance process
  • Board review of jurisdiction and evidence
  • Board investigation of allegations, including the option to engage a neutral expert or to order the doctor submit to a mental or physical examination
  • Decision whether to issue a formal complaint against the doctor
  • Doctor’s right to request an administrative hearing to present their case before a state hearing officer
  • Doctor’s right to object in writing to a hearing officer’s unfavorable recommended decision
  • Board review of recommendation and objections followed by acceptance, modification or rejection of findings, and either dismissal or discipline
  • Physician may appeal an unfavorable decision to the Jefferson County Circuit Court

Impact on license

The board has a variety of disciplinary options, including:

  • License revocation
  • License suspension
  • License limitations
  • Probation
  • Reprimand
  • Fines

South Carolina has a similar physician licensing structure and process. Its comparable state agency is the State Board of Medical Examiners and its Medical Disciplinary Commission that hears formal complaints against doctors. South Carolina law defines doctor misconduct in several ways, including having “sustained a physical or mental impairment that renders further practice by the licensee dangerous to the public or interfere with the licensee’s ability to competently and safely perform the essential functions of practice” as well as abuse or addictive use of drugs, alcohol or other substances that “impair ability” or trying to practice medicine under the influence of any of these.

If a court finds that a doctor is mentally incompetent, the board must suspend their license.


Putting patients in harm’s way by treating them while dealing with mental health or substance abuse can put medical licenses in jeopardy. Obviously, this would be unethical and put professional competence into question.

It needs to be remembered that the gravity of this behavior must not be allowed to improperly influence a conclusion that a physician facing such allegations in a grievance or complaint has done so. An attorney can help to protect a doctor’s license and career by advocating for them at every step of the process.