Burnout was already significant and growing in the medical profession when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and worsened the problem, pushing health systems and care providers to their limits for more than a year.
“Physician burnout and physician wellness has been a topic for the past several years, and adding a pandemic on top of ‘normal times,’ it’s only going to be exacerbated,” said Kevin McFatridge, chief operating officer at the Michigan State Medical Society.
“When your hospitals are at capacity and people’s lives are on the line in a pandemic when you are basically learning the symptoms as you go and treatment as you go, the stakes have been higher in the health care community,” McFatridge added. “I would absolutely argue that burnout has reached an all-time high.”
To provide some relief, the Medical Society recently introduced an effort to address burnout and professional fatigue felt by doctors, physician assistants, nurses and other medical professionals.
Conceived and developed by the Medical Society of Virginia, SafeHaven is essentially an employee assistance program geared specifically toward medical professionals. SafeHaven offers physicians and others a confidential well-being program to help them manage professional and personal stress that can lead to burnout.
The 15,000-member Michigan State Medical Society reached out to its Virginia counterpart after learning of the program. The Michigan State Medical Society launched SafeHaven this month and has been contacting other organizations in the state that represent medical professionals, as well as medical schools whose students also experience burnout.
“Provider health and wellness is something that is very challenging, and challenging the health and safety of our patients here in Michigan,” McFatridge said. “It goes back to bringing the joy of the practice of medicine back into the lives of physicians and provider communities. We want to make sure that physicians have the tools and resources available to them to do the best that they can on an everyday basis.”
‘Growing public health concern’
A 2019 National Academy of Medicine study characterizes burnout as emotional exhaustion, detachment and a low sense of personal accomplishment. The study concluded that “current understanding suggests that burnout is a growing public health concern among all types of clinicians and learners, that the problem has been growing for years, leading to an alarming rate of burnout caused by high stress, high demands, high patient caseloads, long hours and a lack of resources.”
The Academy of Medicine estimated that 35 percent to 40 percent of practicing physicians and nurses experience symptoms of burnout. The rate was even higher — 45 percent to 60 percent — among medical students and residents.
Dr. Terri Babineau, chief medical officer for SafeHaven, cites data that indicat as many as two-thirds of doctors have experienced symptoms of burnout in the pandemic.
As a subscription service, SafeHaven offers clinicians telephonic behavioral health support 24 hours a day, plus peer coaching, counseling sessions, legal and financial counseling and other resources.
Quite often physicians feeling burned out are reluctant to seek help. They worry that seeking mental health help would hurt their career, job status or their professional licensing, and that it “can affect your livelihood and also affect your reputation,” Babineau said.
“They would be afraid to go to anyone for help because it would cause a problem,” she said. “So, what was happening was physicians were just kind of suffering in silence and all of those factors started that really made burnout become a big issue.”
In Virginia, the Medical Society worked with lawmakers to enact legislation preventing disclosure of information about a physician who seeks mental health care to a licensing board. Also playing into the reluctance to seek help is a culture within the medical profession that often keeps doctors, physician assistants and nurses from getting the help they need, Babineau said. Some believe that they can handle the mounting stress on their own or simply tough it out.
“We have to absolutely admit and are really putting forth a lot of effort to change that culture, that thought that ‘we don’t need help,’” she said. “We sometimes do adopt this culture that is almost dehumanizing. Many people in medicine are working hard to make medicine more humanistic, not just for patients but also for providers.”
A key aspect to the wellness platform is the confidential peer-to-peer counseling. Surveys conducted by VITAL WorkLife Inc., a Minneapolis-based behavioral health consulting practice that focuses on workplace well being, found that doctors tend to not use traditional employee assistance programs. VITAL WorkLife operates SafeHaven through a partnership signed with the Medical Society of Virginia in March 2020.
Professionals who use SafeHaven for coaching or mental health care are speaking confidentially to peers “who understand where you’re coming from,” Babineau said.
Survey data indicate just 2 percent to 3 percent of doctors will use “even the most robust” available employee assistance program (EAP), “and a lot of that is because maybe they created a ruckus somewhere and were forced to do that,” Babineau said.
Early data since SafeHaven launched a year ago in Virginia show 30 percent to 35 percent of the doctors at participating medical practices have used the well being platform, she said.
The peer-to-peer coaching for medical professionals adds a “very valuable” component beyond a traditional EAP that makes it appealing, according to McFatridge.
“When you’re having a personal issue, not everybody can resonate or relate to it, so it’s important to find folks who can relate and help you through a tough time,” he said.
Michigan is the first market where the Medical Society of Virginia has extended SafeHaven. The Medical Society of Virginia is close to signing similar agreements with peer organizations in Indiana and South Dakota while finalizing an arrangement in Maryland, said Dustin Beekman, director of business development for the Medical Society of Virginia Insurance Agency.
Medical organizations in another six or seven states are interested in adopting the service, he said.
“If we find something of value, we share it,” Beekman said.