Prioritize Providers this Mental Health Awareness Month
A year of profound stress precedes this Mental Health Awareness Month, which arrives at a critical moment in time, especially in healthcare. The problem of physician burnout was well documented before the pandemic began, but it has come sharply into focus in a more public way over the past 15 months, as images of hospital workers caring for patients in overflowing ICUs bombarded us on television and social media. At the start of 2021, a survey found 47% of physicians reported burnout as having a strong or severe impact on their lives. And as of February 2021, roughly half of physicians surveyed reported greater anxiety or depression during the pandemic.
This much is clear: both the causes and symptoms of physician burnout can vary widely; and addressing providers’ overall mental health is a key to combatting it. Ironically, many physicians are hesitant to pursue help for mental health issues, as noted in a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, due to the perceived stigma and fear of professional disclosure. It is critical that the healthcare profession prioritize mental health awareness in order to overcome those fears.
Minimizing burnout and prioritizing mental wellness can have long-lasting returns for providers and healthcare organizations. Here’s how they can make that goal a reality:
- Start a conversation: Advocating for and supporting patient wellness has always been at the core of healthcare’s mission. Now, turning that lens toward the people who routinely deliver patient care is vital. Provider organizations should work to break down any barriers that prevent physicians from prioritizing their own health. Internal messaging should emphasize wellness and encouragephysicians, who are accustomed to putting others first, to incorporate it into their every day practices.
- Lift the tech burden: Alleviating many of the stressors that contribute to physician burnout begins with examining how physicians allocate their time. The same 2021 survey found 58% of physicians attributed their burnout to having too many bureaucratic tasks. Optimization solutions for electronic health records (EHR) systems are creating new ways to streamline physician workflow and many of the administrative tasks that distract from patient care, such as entering notes and charges. For instance, mobile apps that integrate with EHR systems make accessing and acting on patient information much easier and convenient for clinicians, and enable smoother collaboration among care team members.
- Watch the clock: Healthcare is known for its demanding hours and grueling schedules. It starts in med school, and continues through internship and residency, but it doesn’t end there. Work-life balance is becoming a top concern among practicing physicians of all ages. Physician leaders and hospital and practice administrators have major roles to play in bringing patient care demands, healthcare business realities, and provider wellness into alignment.
- Provide appropriate resources: Physicians are under unique pressures when it comes to mental health issues. A recent AAMC article laid out the issues starkly: “fear of losing job opportunities, their peers’ respect, and even their ability to practice medicine keeps many from seeking the care they need.” Beyond removing any stigma around mental health care, provider organizations need to have resources at the ready. Physicians know better than anyone the value of early intervention for patients; the same holds true for their own mental health.
As we’ll be reminded throughout Mental Health Awareness Month, simply knowing someone understands your struggle can be a powerful first step toward healing. Building awareness is an integral part of combating the burnout epidemic. In taking concrete action to prioritize mental health, healthcare organizations can ensure providers feel supported in their mental health journey.
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health assistance, SAMHSA operates a free, confidential, 24/7, year-round treatment referral and information service at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).