By Melina Davis
CEO & EVP, Medical Society of Virginia

In the high-stress world of medicine, the mental health and well-being of physicians is often overlooked or neglected. Physician/Provider Health Programs (PHPs) were established by physician and healthcare worker regulatory boards and were introduced with the noble intention of providing support to struggling doctors while also serving as an objective assessor of competency to oversight boards. Unfortunately, this has led to a reported lack of trust and an apprehension to voluntarily seek assistance from PHPs by clinicians. As a result, healthcare employees have internalized their struggle and avoided seeking help with career fatigue, burnout, and more serious emotional distress issues. 

Are you dealing with burnout symptoms in your healthcare profession? See how SafeHaven can help support you.

There is a better way forward: medical societies.  

Medical societies can offer earlier intervention and confidential mental health and well-being resources, fostering trust and support within the healthcare community. 

The Importance of Oversight and Accountability

First, it is important to mention that regulatory boards play a vital role in supporting the well-being of healthcare professionals and safety of patients. They offer significant and unique benefits: 

Specialized Care: PHPs often provide specialized care tailored to the unique needs of healthcare professionals. This may include access to addiction specialists, psychiatrists, therapists, and other healthcare professionals experienced in treating physicians. Such specialized care ensures that doctors receive the support and treatment necessary for their specific challenges. 

Accountability and Monitoring: For clinicians dealing with substance abuse or other issues that may impact patient safety, regulatory boards offer structured monitoring and accountability measures.  

Rehabilitation and Reintegration: These organizations play a crucial role in facilitating rehabilitation and the reintegration of clinicians into practice following treatment. They provide support and guidance throughout the recovery process, helping doctors, PAs, nurses, and other professionals navigate the challenges of returning to work while maintaining their health and well-being. 

Lack of early intervention and confidentiality

Although PHPs are a vital piece in the continuum of care and were established to assist doctors dealing with substance use or other severe mental health issues, most are not designed to offer daily career fatigue, mental health, and well-being resources needed to ensure clinicians do not reach distress levels.

Unfortunately, these programs have faced criticism for their lack of full confidentiality and perceived punitive approach. A clinician also must accept a loss of autonomy over their treatment, a significant psychological factor to clinicians, while participating in most PHPs. Many clinicians fear that seeking help through PHPs could jeopardize their medical licenses or professional reputations and cost them financially. The possibility of escalation to mandatory reporting to medical licensing boards further adds to the unease, discouraging physicians, PAs, and other healthcare workers from seeking the help they desperately need. 

Building Trust through Confidential Support

National, state, specialty, and local medical societies have a pivotal role to play in reshaping the narrative around clinician well-being. Career fatigue, moral injury challenges and burnout are great concerns to the profession. As a country, we must find innovative ways to save our colleagues’ lives and end professional fatigue and burnout while addressing the rapidly rising tide of moral injury, attrition, and suicide. 

By offering new legal protections and clarity around reporting requirements as well as confidential mental health and well-being resources, physicians can seek support without fear of repercussion.

The SafeHaven program is designed to address the issues affecting the unique personal and work challenges of healthcare professionals, the ingrained stigma of asking for help and encourage early intervention so that healthcare professionals can reverse the downward loss spiral and continue to care for patients safely.  

Additionally, SafeHaven is now working to identify and provide protected services for clinicians who find themselves in need of medical care. SafeHaven also has collaboratively identified how and when to responsibly coordinate with PHPs and state boards of medicine on any reportable interventions for substance use disorder and beyond.  

Some interventions might require the leverage inherent in most PHPs for clinicians to seek or receive treatment; however, we believe less than 10% of the healthcare workforce need this intense level of intervention. Healthcare needs more options for the other 90% of healthcare professionals and SafeHaven is an important part of that developing eco-system.  

In fact, SafeHaven is one of the most robust and well-rounded set of well-being resources available to clinicians and other licensed providers today and is spreading across the country as the newest standard of early intervention for burnout.  

Emphasizing and Advocating for Confidentiality and Robust Well-being Resources

Unlike PHPs which are often perceived as disciplinary mechanisms, medical societies can serve as supportive entities focused on the holistic well-being of physicians and their teams through SafeHaven. This elevation of the mission and approach can help break barriers, offering the psychological safety necessary to encourage more clinicians to proactively address their mental health needs. By prioritizing protection, psychological safety, and support, medical societies can foster a culture of openness and empowerment within the medical community. 

The SafeHaven model is built on the success and best practices of confidential, voluntary coaching and counseling resources in other safety-sensitive occupations, including the US Army Coaching Program, and Counseling Team International’s Peer Support Program, used by police departments across the US. 

Importantly, a sense of safety and protected speech has been the difference maker in improving use of these key services. 

In addition to providing direct support, medical societies can also serve as advocates for systemic change within the healthcare industry. By raising awareness about the importance of physician well-being and advocating for policies that prioritize protected mental health support, these societies can drive meaningful reform and strengthen relationships with those they serve. Education is equally crucial, empowering physicians with the knowledge and resources they need to prioritize self-care and seek help early on and whenever needed. 

By shifting the focus to early intervention, confidential support and leveraging the resources and influence of medical societies, we can create a more supportive and empowering environment for doctors and their teams to ensure they do not reach the point of needing mandatory interventions directed by oversight boards.  

It is time to prioritize clinician well-being and build a healthcare system that encourages the mental health of one of its most critical assets: our doctors, PAs, nurses, dentists, and pharmacists.