From the President: A Message on Physician Wellbeing
August 22, 2022
Nashville, TN – As the Covid-19 Omicron BA.5 variant is rearing its head again and infecting many of our patients and even our colleagues, we are all wondering if this nightmare will ever end. We have all lost many people close to us in the last two-and-a-half years since we first heard of Covid-19. Patients are afraid to come in, leading to the rise in telemedicine. These factors have placed unprecedented stress on the entire healthcare industry, but has affected physicians disproportionately.
Depression and burnout have wide-reaching repercussions. A depressed physician cannot provide care effectively to patients and makes more errors. On a personal side, it affects relationships and can lead to alcohol and substance abuse, divorce, and even suicide. Early signs of depression include changes in exercise patterns, sleep patterns, eating patterns, or social interactions.
In June 2021, the Physicians Foundation surveyed over 2,500 physicians examining the impact of Covid-19 on America’s physicians. The survey found that 61 percent of those surveyed reported feelings of burnout, often reported as anger, tearfulness, or anxiety. This was an increase of over 20 percent in only two years. Treatment is often not sought for fear of retribution. In fact, only 14 percent of the physicians reporting burnout sought any kind of medical attention. They feared it could affect their medical license or hospital privileges.
In 2018, The Federation of State Medical Boards released a policy on Physician Wellness and Burnout. This led to a change in the Tennessee license application asking about impairment rather than mental health treatment. In May 2020, the Joint Commission stated that it does not require organizations to ask about a clinician’s history of mental health conditions or treatment and limits inquiries to current impairment. Physicians should not be afraid to seek mental health services if they are struggling.
Concern over burnout led the American Medical Association to make the issue one of its top priorities. In May, U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory addressing health care worker burnout. “The nation’s health depends on the well-being of our health workforce,” he said. “Confronting the long-standing drivers of burnout among our health workers must be a top national priority.”
On Aug. 25, the next TMA All Member Virtual meeting will feature a presentation on physician well-being from Corey Feist, the president and co-founder of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation. Dr. Breen was a very accomplished emergency room physician who committed suicide after experiencing a mental breakdown during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Register for the meeting at tnmed.org/events. A recorded version will be made available shortly thereafter.
We look forward to continued dialogue throughout the year on this important topic. If members have thoughts or insights on how to best proceed with this focus please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We all need to work together to be successful at this critical endeavor.