Dr. Safwat Rizkalla’s Medical License Suspended Pending Hearing on Opioid Use

The bad doctor is in. Illustration by Matt Coker

The medical license of a Yorba Linda anesthesiologist, who allegedly told an addiction psychiatrist that he used prescription opioids and sedatives before assisting in surgeries, has been suspended pending a full hearing on his drug use, according to state officials. 

Dr. Safwat Rizkalla has not been able to practice medicine since the suspension went into effect on April 18, says the Medical Board of California.

The board launched an investigation of Rizkalla in 2015, after he had been arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. The probe included an examination of the physician’s own medical records, “which suggested the possibility of prescription drug abuse,” states the interim suspension order that you can read here.

Rizkalla was then referred to the board’s expert medical reviewer, addiction psychiatrist Dr. Markham Kirsten, who performed an evaluation on March 12. Kirsten issued a report back to the board that diagnosed Rizkalla with “severe opioid disorder, severe sedative use disorder and depression,” according to the interim suspension order, which added this sobering finding: “Dr. Kirsten reported that [Rizkalla] stated he uses prescription opioids and sedatives prior to assisting in surgery and inducing anesthesia.”

Because of the impairment those drugs can produce, Kirsten “concluded that [Rizkalla] cannot safely practice medicine at this time” and “recommended suspending [Rizkalla’s] license until [he] successfully completes an intensive substance rehabilitation program,” reads the state document.

Rizkalla countered on March 29, petitioning to take the matter before an administrative law judge. He also retained an expert of his own: Dr. Michel A. Sucher, a fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and a diplomate of the American Board of Addiction Medicine.

After performing an examination on April 4, Sucher diagnosed Rizkalla with “mild benzodiazepine use disorder and situational depression,” according to state documents. Benzodiazepine, also known as “benzos,” is an anti-anxiety sedative that relaxes muscles and induces sleep. Benzos can he highly addictive if abused.

Sucher did not diagnose Rizkalla with opioid use disorder, according to the state documents, and that diagnosis was backed up by Dr. Paul A. Jain, who at the board’s direction had conducted a physical examination of the anesthesiologist before concluding there was “no evidence of opiate abuse/dependency.”

That led Sucher to find it was safe for Rizkalla to practice medicine, noting he was “tapering back use of benzodiazepine” and was “in early remission from benzodiazepine use disorder,” read the state documents.

Administrative Law Judge Howard W. Cohen of the California Office of Administrative Hearings heard arguments April 6 in Los Angeles, where Kimberly Kirchmeyer, executive director of the Medical Board of California, was represented by state Deputy Attorney General Tan N. Tran. Rizkalla was there with his attorney, Lindsay M. Johnson.

In the order posted April 18, Cohen found the government had cause to suspend Rizkalla’s license pending a full hearing on the merits of the case. The judge cited both Kirsten and Sucher’s diagnoses of sedative use disorder and depression, “a reasonable probability” that the state would prevail in an accusation hearing against Rizkalla’s medical license, and the potential injury to the public were there no suspension outweighing the potential injury to Rizkalla with one. Cohen did acknowledge the anesthesiologist will likely suffer financial injury in the meantime, however.

The judge scheduled the full hearing for May 7 in Los Angeles.

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