Virginia’s confidential mental health service saves doctors from burnout

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 United States, physicians seeking assistance may sometimes benefit more from a current resource.

Many doctors not only fear that they will be stigmatized and harshly judged by their colleagues, they also worry that they will face repercussions from the medical board or their employers if they seek help. Many also worry that their mental health records could be exposed in a lawsuit.

The leadership of the Medical Society of Virginia (MSV) heard these concerns from hundreds of physicians and other clinicians across the state as they embarked on a journey to develop a program that offers low access to mental health and health-related services. MSV did not seek to supplant public PHP, but rather offered additional privacy services.

MSV’s journey eventually led to state lawmakers unanimously passing a first-of-its-kind law in 2020 that created a confidential resource called SafeHaven. It is a program run by MSV where doctors can seek confidential help 24 hours a day, seven days a week to address career burnout or mental health issues. The law also ensures that information that comes from SafeHaven is kept confidential.

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Doctors can access counseling services or peer-to-peer support.

“This is one of the most important achievements in the medical community, and it is truly life-changing for our physicians and their teams,” said Melina Davis, executive vice president and CEO of the medical society. “We really believe that the two pieces — protection and privacy, and having very experienced health care clinicians on the service side — are very important.”

The program was so successful 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 attrition 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 problem brief,Confidential care to support the doctor’s health and well-being» (PDF), which provides sample 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 in Arizona’s recently passed Physician Welfare Support Act. They complement laws passed in Virginia, South Dakota, and Indiana that are specifically designed to protect physicians seeking occupational fatigue and health care.

“Supporting the mental health and well-being of physicians and medical students is critical to maintaining the health of our nation,” said AMA President Jack Resneck Jr., MD.

Virginia’s SafeHaven program shows that ensuring confidentiality and preventing professional consequences fills a gap for doctors, other clinicians and students who have problems, Davis said. “We strongly support our public PHP, but we also recognize the need to offer many open doors for confidential care. SafeHaven is perfect for that.”

More than 5,500 doctors and other clinicians are currently involved in the program.

As a rule, only 1% of doctors in the country will use the health resources available to them. About 3% to 4% of nurses use them, and about 6% to 7% of the general population will use the resources.

“Our workload is 48% among all groups. It’s unbelievable,” Davis said.

Learn how states can help doctors get the confidential care they deserve.

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Several doctors told MSV leaders they were grateful to have someone care about 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.

Several unvaccinated patients died from complications of COVID-19 at the doctor’s office in two weeks. She encouraged these patients to get vaccinated before they got sick.

“It rocked her professionally,” Davis said. But “this coach, she said, helped her change her mindset around how she served, how she really helped families and how she helped patients. She called us back and said, “I spent 30 minutes on the phone with this coach, and I think it saved my career.” I can keep training.”

MSV leaders are exploring other services they can add to SafeHaven to support physicians, such as a service aimed at financial stress. In addition, they work with hospital leaders to get their specific commitment to help reduce attrition. They’re also working to ensure that language around state licensure issues doesn’t prevent doctors from saying they’ve sought help.

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