D.C. Doctors Sound Alarm on Mental Health Services

By Marcia Slacum Greene
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 1988; 12:00 AM

A group of doctors with hands-on responsibility for District mental health programs has warned that staff shortages have crippled the city's ability to provide "even minimal" care and that it fears it is at risk of violating the Hippocratic oath to "first, do no harm."

The warning came in an April 15 letter to D.C. Mental Health Commissioner Robert L. Washington from the commission's Medical Practice Committee, which is made up of directors of mental health programs in the community and at St. Elizabeths Hospital.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained yesterday by The Washington Post, described a deteriorating mental health system that "knowingly or unwittingly neglects its basic medical responsibility to its patients."

"We feel compelled to inform you that any continuation of this downward slide in the quality of care will likely lead to dramatically increased morbidity and mortality," the physicians wrote. The letter, which was approved by the 15-member committee after a vote, was signed by seven physicians including Chairman Stephen J. Rojcewicz.

One hospital physician interviewed yesterday said that because of physician shortages, admissions for acute care patients are "turning into a revolving door," and some patients who are prone to violence are being released "without getting the care they need." The doctor asked not to be identified.

The criticism from within the commission mirrors recent allegations from advocacy groups, including a mental health watchdog group that said last week the city's mental health services are "on the brink of disaster."

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