It’s no secret that doctors are reluctant to seek help when they feel they are struggling with their own mental health. While confidential support from the Physician Health Program (PHP) helps physicians in Virginia and across the US, physicians seeking care can sometimes use more of a resource right now.
In addition to the fear of being stigmatized and judged harshly by their colleagues, many doctors worry that they will face repercussions from the medical board or their employers if they seek help. Many are also concerned that their mental health records could become exposed in a lawsuit.
Medical Society of Virginia (MSV) leaders heard these concerns from hundreds of physicians and other clinicians across their state as they embarked on a journey to build a program that offers low-barrier access to mental health care and wellness-related services . MSV did not want to replace the government’s PHP, but rather to offer additional, confidential services.
MSV’s journey ultimately led state lawmakers to unanimously pass a first-of-its-kind law in 2020 that created a confidential resource called SafeHaven. It’s a program run by MSV where doctors can seek confidential help 24 hours a day, seven days a week to deal with career fatigue or mental health issues. The law also ensures that information originating from SafeHaven is privileged.
Physicians have access to counseling or peer support services.
“This is one of the most important things the medical society has ever accomplished, and it makes a real difference for our physicians and their teams,” said Melina Davis, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the medical society. “We really believe that having both pieces — protection and privacy and very experienced healthcare clinicians on the service side — is really important.”
The program was such a success that the Virginia Legislature expanded SafeHaven in 2021 to include medical students, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurse practitioners, nursing students, pharmacists and pharmacy students.
Reducing physician burnout is a critical component of the AMA’s recovery plan for America’s physicians.
Too many American doctors are experiencing burnout. That’s why the AMA is developing resources that prioritize wellness and highlight workflow changes so physicians can focus on what matters—patient care.
The AMA recently updated its short issue, “Confidential care in support of physician health and well-being“ (PDF), which provides model legislative language and other recommended policy actions for states, as well as new resources for physicians and state medical associations.
Among the updates are new provisions from Arizona’s recently passed law to support physician welfare. They complement laws passed in Virginia, South Dakota and Indiana that are specifically designed to protect doctors seeking help with career fatigue and health.
“Supporting the mental health and well-being of physicians and medical students is essential to maintaining the health of our nation,” said AMA President Jack Resneck Jr., MD.
Virginia’s SafeHaven program shows that ensuring privacy and preventing professional repercussions fills the gap for struggling doctors and other clinicians and students, Davis said. “We strongly support our state PHP, but we also recognized the need to offer multiple open doors for confidential care. SafeHaven is a perfect fit for that.”
There are now more than 5,500 physicians and other clinicians enrolled in the program.
Typically, only 1% of physicians nationally will use the physician health care resources available to them. About 3% to 4% of nurses use them and about 6% to 7% of the general public will use the resources.
“Our utilization is 48% among all groups. It’s incredible,” Davis said.
Learn how states can help doctors get the confidential care they deserve.
A number of doctors have told MSV leaders they are grateful to have someone to care for them, Davis said.
For one Virginia doctor, being able to have a 30-minute, confidential phone conversation with a doctor in Atlanta helped her stay in medicine.
The doctor caused several unvaccinated patients to die from complications of COVID-19 over a two-week period. She urged these patients to get vaccinated before they got sick.
“It was crushing her professionally,” Davis said. But “this coach, she said, helped her change her mindset around how she served and the ways she helped families and the ways she helped patients. She called us back to say, “I spent 30 minutes on the phone with this coach and I believe it saved my career. I can keep training.”
MSV executives are exploring other services they can add to SafeHaven to support physicians, such as one that focuses on financial stress. Additionally, they work with hospital leaders to gain their specific commitment to help alleviate burnout. They’re also working to ensure that the language surrounding state licensure questions doesn’t prevent doctors from saying they’ve sought help.