An 60-year-old man has a heart attack in the middle of an emergency abdominal surgery at 11:00 pm and dies two hours later. Should the anesthesiologist be made to submit to a drug test to seek out alcohol or drug ingestion that could have made her performance impaired?

Discussion: In the 2012 movie Flight, Denzel Washington stars as a commercial airline pilot addicted to alcohol and cocaine, who crashes his airplane while he is intoxicated. Analogies between aviation and anesthesia are commonplace. Both involve takeoffs, landings, and varying cruising times between the two. Both are generally quite safe, but on occasion disastrous accidents occur.

Pilots are required to submit to random drug testing and to testing following accidents. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandated drug and alcohol testing of safety-sensitive aviation employees in the Omnibus Transportation Employees Testing Act of 1991 to help protect the public and keep the skies safe.

Proposition 46 was a 2014 California legal initiative that proposed similar random drug testing of physicians and drug testing following critical sentinel events. Prop 46 was on the ballot for the November 2014 general election, and was soundly defeated. This proposition was noteworthy for bundling the drug-testing proposal with an additional proposal that would increase the maximum pain and suffering malpractice reward from $250,000 per case to $1,100,000 per case. Prop 46 was funded and supported by trial lawyers who sought to raise the ceiling on pain and suffering awards they could win in medical malpractice suits in California.

This malpractice award increase proposed by trial lawyers was viewed as a money grab, and was unpopular with voters. Because of concerns with increasing malpractice costs and health care costs, Prop 46 was defeated.

But what if Prop 46 had solely been about drug-testing physicians? Would it have a better chance of passing? I have no crystal ball, but my guess is that yes, it would have had a better chance of passing. According to the September 13, 2014 edition of the Los Angeles Times, the component of Prop 46 that required random drug and alcohol testing of doctors was popular among those surveyed: 68% of likely voters were in favor of it, while 25% were opposed.

In the August 1, 2014 issue of the New York Times, Adam Nagourney wrote “At a time when random drug testing is part of the job for pilots, train operators, police officers and firefighters—to name a few—one high-profile line of work has managed to remain exempt: doctors. That may be about to change. California would become the first state to require doctors to submit to random drug and alcohol tests under a measure to appear on the ballot this November. The proposal, which drew approval in early focus groups, was inserted as a sweetener in a broad initiative pushed by trial lawyers that also includes an unrelated measure to raise the state’s financial cap on medical malpractice awards for the first time since 1975, to $1.1 million from $250,000.”

The same New York Times article states, “Backers of Proposition 46 have begun putting out a steady stream of news releases about cases involving doctors with a history of drug and alcohol abuse…. ‘It’s crucial: I can’t believe we haven’t done this already,’ said Arthur L. Caplan, a medical ethicist at New York University. ‘But the idea that we wouldn’t be screening our surgeon, our anesthesiologist or our oncologist when we are going to screen our bus drivers and our airline pilots strikes me as ethically indefensible.’” In the same article, Daniel R. Levinson, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, opines that there should be random drug testing across the medical profession, given the access in hospitals to controlled substances. “I don’t think that a carve-out when it comes to the medical field is sensible public policy,” he said. “No one should be above suspicion or below suspicion. I think we all need to play by similar rules.”

In a recent commentary published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Dr. Julius Pham of Johns Hopkins wrote, “Patients and their family members have a right to be protected from impaired physicians…. Why is there such a difference among high-risk industries, which all pledge to keep the public safe? First, medicine is underregulated compared with other industries. The fiduciary patient-physician relationship is generally considered to be governed by the profession, not to be tampered with by regulatory bodies. While some state and individual health system regulations exist, they tend to be weak. Second, self-monitoring is the essence of medical professionalism. Peer review is the accepted modality to identify physicians with impaired performance. Most states now have a designated physician health program to detect and assist potentially impaired physicians before those physicians cause patients harm. However, these programs vary in their mandate, authority, reporting requirements, and activities. For instance, California has the largest number of US physicians, but its physician health program was recently discontinued. In states without proactive programs, it seems, by default, that patient harm has to occur before a review process occurs. In many cases, an overwhelming amount of data (i.e., harmed patients) must be available before a hospital or state initiates an investigation.”

Dr. Pham goes on to say, “What might a model of physician impairment regulation look like? First, mandatory physical examination, drug testing, or both may be considered before a medical staff appointment. This already occurs in some hospitals and has been successful in other industries. Second, a program of random alcohol-drug testing could be implemented. Random testing is required for most federal employees and has been successfully implemented in several medical settings. Random testing in the military has resulted in a decrease in illicit drug use. Third, a policy for routine drug-alcohol testing could be initiated for all physicians involved with a sentinel event leading to patient death. Fourth, a national hospital regulatory/accrediting body could establish these standards to maintain consistency across states.” (Pham JC et al, Identification of Physician Impairment, JAMA. 2013;309(20):2101-2102)

It’s estimated that approximately 10% to 15% of all healthcare professionals misuse drugs or alcohol at some time during their career. Although rates of substance abuse and dependence are no different than those in the general population, the stakes are higher because healthcare professionals are caregivers responsible for the general health and well-being of our population. It’s known that specialties such as anesthesiology, emergency medicine, and psychiatry have higher rates of drug abuse, possible due to the stress level associated with these specialties, the baseline personalities of these healthcare providers, and easy access to drugs in these specialties. (Baldisseri, MR, Impaired Healthcare Professional, Crit Care Med 2007 Feb;35(2 Suppl):S106-16)

As physicians, do we have any compelling arguments to deflect the notion of MD’s being drug tested? Physicians decry the intrusion into their privacy. There is the ethical question whether the risk of patient injury by the 10% of physicians who use drugs and/or alcohol merits that the other 90% of physicians should be subjected to drug testing. There is also the specter of false-positive tests, which could wreak havoc with a doctor’s reputation. The details of any proposed drug and alcohol screening programs will be crucial, and any screening program will require careful consideration of a physician’s rights and privacy.

Two prominent hospitals—Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio—implemented random urine drug testing in their anesthesia residency teaching departments. A 2005 survey by the Cleveland Clinic estimated that 80 percent of anesthesiology residency training programs reported problems with drug-impaired doctors, and an additional 19 percent reported a death from overdose. “The problem is that we are exposed to, and we have the use of, very highly addictive and potent medications,” said Dr. Michael G. Fitzsimons, administrator for the substance abuse program of the department of anesthesia and critical care at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Dr. Gregory B. Collins, section head of the Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center, at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, said, “The first thing you often realize in these cases, it’s a kid dead in the bathroom with a needle in his arm.” Dr. Arnold Berry, an anesthesiologist and a member of the Committee on Occupational Health of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, said estimates of anesthesiologists who are addicted to medication range from only 1 to 2 percent. “The most recent study in training programs suggests the (addiction) rate has stayed the same for 20 years,” he said. Dr. Berry said the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) has decided to use other tactics to stave off addiction, rather than recommending urine testing. The ASA is implemented a “wellness initiative” to help anesthesiologists deal with stressors in their lives. (Urine Drug Tests for Doctors? Nov. 12, 2008, By Lauren Cox, ABC News Medical Unit)

While doctors and organized medicine may delay the notion of drug testing for themselves, public opinion and lawmakers may lead the way toward making physicians “pee in the cup.” Citizens don’t want their airline pilots, firemen, and police officers under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and patients don’t want their doctors under the influence of alcohol or drugs either.

Our patients always come first. It will be an arduous task for MD’s to forever oppose a mandate for clean and sober physicians. Hugh Laurie was a fascinating character as the opiate-popping junkie doctor in “House,” but what patient wants the TV persona of Dr. Gregory House at their bedside?

Introducing …,  THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a legal mystery. Publication date September 9, 2014 by Pegasus Books.

The first four chapters are available for free at Amazon. Read them and you’ll be hooked! To reach the Amazon webpage, click on the book image below:


Stanford professor Dr. Nico Antone leaves the wife he hates and the job he loves to return to Hibbing, Minnesota where he spent his childhood. He believes his son’s best chance to get accepted into a prestigious college is to graduate at the top of his class in this remote Midwestern town. His son becomes a small town hero and academic star, while Dr. Antone befriends Bobby Dylan, a deranged anesthetist who renamed and reinvented himself as a younger version of the iconic rock legend who grew up in Hibbing. An operating room death rocks their world, and Dr. Antone’s family and his relationship to Mr. Dylan are forever changed.

Equal parts legal thriller and medical thriller, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan examines the dark side of relationships between a doctor and his wife, a father and his son, and a man and his best friend. Set in a rural Northern Minnesota world reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan details scenes of family crises, operating room mishaps, and courtroom confrontation, and concludes in a final twist that will leave readers questioning what is of value in the world we live in.


5.0 out of 5 stars The Doctor and Mr Dylan, March 3, 2015
prabha venugopal (chicago, il USA) – See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
Gripping from the beginning to the end. Very well written, bringing to the forefront all the human emotions seen in an operating room spill over into real life. I cannot wait for Dr. Novak to wrote another book! As another physician in the same profession, my admiration for his book knows no limits.

Bang-Up Debut Novel, November 16, 2014

By Norm Goldman “Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures”

This part legal and medical thriller is structured with a mixed bag of situations involving relationships, jealousy, evil, lies, courtroom drama, operating room mishaps as well as moments that engender conflicting and unexpected outcomes. Noteworthy is that as the suspense builds readers will become eager to uncover the truth involving a mishap concerning Nico and a surgical procedure that has unanticipated ramifications.

This is a bang-up debut from a writer who understands timing and is able to deliver hairpin turns, particularly involving the courtroom drama,that you would expect from a book of this genre. PIONEER PRESS Entertainment

by Mary Ann Grossman, Entertainment Editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 4, 2015

“The Doctor & Mr. Dylan” by Rick Novak (Pegasus Books, $17.50)

Dr. Nico Antone doesn’t hide the fact he hates his wife, but he says he didn’t kill her during an operation. The authorities think otherwise and his trial is the riveting suspense in this novel that is part medical thriller, part legal thriller, part exploration of family relationships.

Nico is an anesthesiologist (as is the author) who leaves his wife, their plush life in California and his job at Stanford to move to his hometown of Hibbing so their son, Johnny, has a better chance of getting into a prestigious college. Johnny hates the idea of moving to a small, cold town, but he’s popular from the first day in school. Nico doesn’t do so well. He’s envied by Bobby, an anesthetist who’s jealous of the better-educated Nico. But it’s hard to take Bobby seriously, since he thinks he’s the young Bob Dylan and lives in the house where Bobby Zimmerman grew up. To complicate matters, Nico is attracted to the mother of the young woman his son is dating. When the two teens get in trouble, Nico’s furious, rich wife comes to Minnesota and needs an emergency operation that puts her on Nico’s operating table.

Novak grew up in Hibbing, where he worked in the iron ore mines and played on the U.S. Junior Men’s Curling championship teams of 1974 and ’75. After graduating from Carleton College, he earned a medical degree at the University of Chicago and spent 30-plus years at Stanford Hospital, where he was an associate professor of anesthesia and Deputy Chief of the Anesthesia Department. His courtroom scenes are based on his experiences as an expert witness.

The Physician’s Late-Night Reading List

Two Pritzker alums pen captivating tales

By Brooke E. O’Neill, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, editir, Medicine on the Midway Magazine

For most physicians, writing — patient notes, case histories, perhaps journal articles — is part of the job. But for anesthesiologist-novelist Rick Novak, MD’80, and neurosurgeon-memoirist Moris Senegor, MD’82, it’s a second career that consumes early morning hours long before they step into the OR.

Fans of John Grisham will find a kindred spirit in Novak, whose fast-paced medical thriller, The Doctor & Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014), transports readers to rural Northern Minnesota, where an accomplished physician and a deranged anesthetist who thinks he’s rock legend Bob Dylan see their worlds collide in the most unexpected ways.

Delivering real-life twists and turns — and a love letter to the Bay Area — is Senegor’s Dogmeat: A Memoir of Love and Neurosurgery in San Francisco (Xlibris, 2014), a coming-of-age tale chronicling the author’s away rotation with renowned neurosurgeon Charles Wilson, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco. Brutally honest, it spares no details of a time Senegor, who also served as a resident under the University of Chicago’s famed neurosurgery chair Sean Mullan, MD, describes as “one of the biggest failures of my life.”

One a vividly imagined nail-biter, the other an intimate peek into the surgical suite, both books deliver an ample dose of intensity and drama.



The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014) by Rick Novak, MD’80

“I thought it was a novel way of killing someone,” said Rick Novak, deputy chief of anesthesiology at Stanford University, describing the imagined hospital death that was the genesis of his dark thriller The Doctor & Mr. Dylan. A huge Bob Dylan fan — the rock icon was born in Novak’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where the story takes place — he then dreamed up a possible culprit: a psychotic anesthetist who thinks he’s Dylan.

From there, the words flowed. “I would write whenever I was with my laptop and had a free moment: in mornings, in evenings, in gaps between cases,” said Novak, who also blogs about anesthesia topics. “I don’t sleep much.”

After finishing the manuscript — one year to write, another to edit — came the challenge of finding a publisher. “In anesthesia, I’m an expert,” Novak said. “In the literary world, I’m an unknown.” After 207 responses of “no, thanks” or no answer at all, he landed an agent. Two months later, she informed him that Pegasus Books had bought his debut novel.

“I started crying,” Novak admits. “I have a third grader and at the time the big word the class was learning was ‘perseverance.’ That was it exactly.”

Dr. Joseph Andresen, Editor, Santa Clara County Medical Association Medical Bulletin, from the January/February 2015 issue:


This past month, Dr. Rick Novak handed me a hardbound copy of his debut novel The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Rick and I go way back. It was my first week of residency at Stanford when we first met. A newcomer to the operating room, all the smells and sounds were foreign to me despite my previous three years in the hospital as an internal medicine resident. Rick, a soft spoken Minnesotan at heart, in his second year of residency, took me under his wing and guided me through those first few bewildering months, sharing his experience and wisdom freely.

Fast-forward 30 years later. Dr. Rick Novak, a novel and mystery author? This was new to me as I sat down and opened the first page of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect. Few books highlight a physician/anesthesiologist as a protagonist, and few books feature a SCCMA member as a physician/author. However, a medical-mystery theme novel wasn’t at the top of my must read list. With my 50-hour workweek, living and breathing medicine, imagining more emotional stress and drama was the furthest thing from my mind. However, three days later, as I turned the last page, and read the last few words. “life is a series of choices. I stuck my forefinger into the crook of the steering wheel, spun it hard to the left and …” This completed my 72-hour journey of and free moments I had, completely immersed in this story of life’s disappointments, human imperfections, and simple joys.

Rick, I can’t wait for your next book. Bravo!

Hibbingite writes twisted medical tale

HIBBING — Readers who are looking for a whodunit that will keep them up all night are in for a treat.

Hibbing native Rick Novak recently released his first book “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a fiction set in Hibbing that merges anesthesia complications, a tumultuous marriage and the legend of Bob Dylan.

“The dialogue is sometimes funny, and there are lots of plot twists,” he said.

Novak said the book will not only entertain readers, but teach them about anesthesiology, Dylanology, the stressful race for elite college admission, and life on the Iron Range.

“The book is very conversational and streamlined,” he said. “I try to write as one would tell a story out loud.”

Novak said “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan” took him three years to perfect. He is currently working on his second book.

5.0 out of 5 stars I Sense We Have Another F.Scott Fitzgerald Emerging on the Literary Scene, December 1, 2014
Deann Brady (Sunnyvale, CA USA) – See all my reviews
I found Rick Novak’s first novel, “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a most exciting combination of biting sarcasm, mystery and daily activity spun with fresh new phrases that made me turn my ear back to listen to the literary cadence of his words again and again even though, on the other hand, I was anxious to turn the pages to see what would happen next. His brilliant handling of scenes is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A compelling read!Deany Brady, author of “An Appalachian Childhood”


allan mishra

This review is from: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Kindle Edition)

Just finished Dr. Novak’s delightful novel. I sincerely enjoyed his honest take about the pressures and values that exist within California’s Silicon Valley. He also brought the North Country of Minnesota to life with memorable characters and a twisting, addictive plot. Buried beneath the fun and funny story is a deeper message about how to best care for your kids, your relationships and yourself. Very well written and highly recommended.

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at rick by clicking on the picture below:



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