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Physician Wellness Highlighted Ahead of NPSA Day

Sept. 8, 2023

By: Dr. Ed Capparelli
TMA Immediate Past President
Chair, TMA Physician Wellness Committee
Oneida Family Physician

In the realm of healing, physicians are the unsung heroes. Yet, behind the white coats and stethoscopes, there is a pressing concern that demands the greater society’s attention: the wellness of our healers themselves. As we strive for a healthier Tennessee, it is imperative that we address the alarming rates of burnout, stress, and, tragically, suicide among our healthcare professionals.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and Sept. 17 is National Physician Suicide Awareness Day. As Immediate Past President of the Tennessee Medical Association and Chair of the TMA Physician Wellness Committee, I call upon our community to recognize the profound connection between physician well-being and patient care.

Recent statistics underscore the urgency of this issue. The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Nationally, a staggering 42% of physicians experience burnout, a rate far higher than in many other professions. In our own state, the numbers are no less concerning. Prior to the pandemic, over 50% of Tennessee physicians reported symptoms of burnout. These figures point to a critical state of affairs, highlighting the critical need for systemic intervention.

Perhaps even more distressing is the elevated risk of suicide among physicians. Those who dedicate their lives to preserving life are themselves at a higher risk, facing a suicide rate significantly above the national average. It is a stark reminder that while physicians are experts at mending the body, they are not immune to the challenges of mental health. This harsh reality calls for immediate and concerted efforts to prevent such tragedies.

The recent introduction of the 988 hotline by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) offers a glimmer of hope. Just as 911 is ingrained in our collective consciousness, 988 will soon serve as a lifeline for individuals in crisis, including healthcare professionals. This initiative is a pivotal stride in deconstructing the barriers that hinder seeking help and underscores the importance of accessible support for all.

However, true change requires a multi-faceted approach. The journey starts with eradicating the stigma attached to seeking help and fostering workplaces that prioritize the wellbeing of physicians. Healthcare institutions, policymakers, and the community all play pivotal roles in shaping an environment of support and wellness. We must emphasize proactive measures such as prevention, early intervention, and comprehensive mental health services.

TMA is addressing the issue legislatively, by working to remove stigmatizing questions on licensure, renewal, and credentialing applications, which may serve as barriers to seeking routine mental health treatment. Credentialing applications at all levels need to focus on current impairment to provide professional patient care rather than asking about past mental health history or even current treatment.

Physician wellness is not an isolated concern—it directly correlates with patient outcomes. A physician who is well-rested and mentally resilient can provide higher quality care, leading to healthier patients. This symbiotic relationship between provider wellness and patient health cannot be overstated. When physicians are thriving, patients are thriving.

In our pursuit of better physician well-being, the 988 hotline emerges as a beacon of hope. Yet, we must also remember that this journey is a shared one. As Tennesseans, we have a duty to stand united in support of our healthcare heroes. By prioritizing physician wellness, we are enhancing the wellbeing of every citizen across the state.

If you or someone you know is struggling, remember that help is just a call away. The 988 hotline is here to provide guidance, solace, and resources.

In this crusade, let us harness the power of unity, compassion, and action. Let us script a narrative where physician wellbeing isn't an afterthought but a cornerstone of our healthcare system. The result? A healthier, happier Tennessee for us all.