The Cost of Silence: Why We Need to Address Physician Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness month, a time when we reflect on the importance of addressing psychological and behavioral well-being, especially within the healthcare sector. Healthcare providers, facing immense pressure, have seen escalating stress levels within their profession exacerbated by burnout and staffing shortages. A 2023 survey found that six out of 10 physicians often experience burnout, an increase of 50% since before the pandemic. Additionally, nearly a quarter of doctors express feelings of depression, with female physicians experiencing higher rates of burnout than their male counterparts.

Despite these alarming statistics, the stigma surrounding physician mental health persists. Many are working hard to change that. A good example is Marvin, a mental health program designed specifically to support physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals. This type of care personalized to meet the unique needs of healthcare workers has the potential to make a big impact. It’s also important to consider the influence of the medical culture, which has contributed to physicians being hesitant to seek mental health care.

Changing the culture of medicine

“The answer won’t be found in telling physicians to be more resilient,” Jack Resneck Jr., president of the American Medical Association (AMA), said in reference to burnout. “We need to fix what’s broken and it’s not the doctor.” According to a 2023 survey, only 31% of physicians agree that their workplace culture prioritizes physician well-being, declining from 36% a year ago.

It’s also time to retire the superhero narrative that paints physicians as above being human. “The culture of medicine traditionally has held doctors to unrealistic standards — to be “super men and super women,” said Dr. Steven Defossez, vice president of clinical integration at the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association. “It means you don’t get hurt, you don’t have emotions. When you’re cut, you don’t bleed. And none of that is true.”

The emotional needs of physicians are often overlooked or seen as a weakness. The survey also found nearly eight in 10 physicians (78%), residents (79%), and medical students (76%) agree that there is stigma surrounding mental health and seeking mental health care among physicians. Approximately half of physicians, residents, and students surveyed said they know a physician/colleague/peer who said they would not seek mental health care. It’s crucial that physicians receive the mental health support they need without fear of repercussions, for the benefit of patients, physicians, and the healthcare system as a whole.

Removing the stigma around mental health

The AMA has been actively advocating for physician mental health, striving to remove barriers that discourage physicians from seeking help. Efforts to eliminate stigmatizing mental health questions from state licensing and credentialing applications are gaining traction, for example.

The AMA has said, “​​Despite a growing body of evidence demonstrating that asking questions about mental health, addiction, or substance use history on licensing and other applications deters physicians from seeking care, several state medical license applications and credentialing applications continue to ask these questions.”

These dialogues are important as they will ideally lead to change. Modio’s CEO and founder Kirk Heath, MD, F.A.C.S. said, “When a physician does have mental health needs, we need to get to a place where that physician feels safe and supported enough to disclose that. A hospital or health system can create an environment where their workforce has the support they need to address their mental health needs, instead of feeling like it’s something that needs to be buried or hidden.”

How can the healthcare sector foster better mental health for physicians? Experts agree on several key areas of change:

  • Flexibility: Rethinking traditional parameters of medical practice, such as offering more flexible options like locum tenens, can provide physicians with alternative work settings.
  • Leadership: Healthcare organizations can follow the AMA’s lead in advocating for legislative, regulatory, and systemic changes to support the mental health needs of medical students, residents, and practicing physicians.
  • Removing stigma: Efforts to remove intrusive mental health questions from licensure and credentialing applications are gaining momentum, helping to alleviate physicians’ fears of being penalized.
  • Listening: Creating safe and receptive environments for discussions about mental health and well-being is crucial.

Progress is being made; recent data from Medscape’s 2024 survey shows a slight decline in burnout and depression rates among physicians. However, the work to transition the healthcare sector to one that actively recognizes and supports the well-being of physicians and other healthcare workers is ongoing and must be prioritized.

Let’s work together to prioritize the mental health of those who dedicate their lives to caring for others.

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