CHICAGO – For physicians who seek care for burnout or other issues, the American Medical Association (AMA) today urged states to create “safe-haven” type programs to encourage counseling and treatment. The programs would complement Physician Health Programs (PHP) to add additional, evidence-based options for physicians to receive care and enable them to continue practicing as long as public safety is not at risk.
Adopted by the AMA’s House of Delegates at its Annual Meeting, the policy is part of a strong focus on physician wellness, including the recently announced Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians – an issue that COVID-19 amplified. The AMA already has begun a national advocacy campaign to support state legislative “safe haven” legislation, including laws in Virginia, Indiana, South Dakota and Arizona. The AMA STEPSforward platform also has an extensive library of resources to support professional well-being.
Under the new policy, the AMA will continue to work with the Federation of State Physician Health Programs (FSPHP) and other key stakeholders to educate physicians and medical students about wellness. That includes an effort to reduce stigma related to mental health -- and illness in general -- in physicians and physicians in-training.
In working with the FSPHP, the AMA will advocate for state guidelines that provide a way for physicians to voluntarily self-report health issues without facing discipline from state licensing boards. If public safety is not at risk, physicians would either not be required to report to the boards or there would be a safe haven for reporting. Physicians can avoid board discipline by engaging with a PHP and successfully completing the terms of participation. These programs have a long record of helping impaired physicians safely return to practice.
“The public health emergency has again reminded us that physicians and other health care professionals on the frontline face high levels of stress. While we are taking care of our patients, we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves,” said AMA Trustee Thomas J. Madejski, M.D. “We need to transform the culture to highlight how seeking care for wellness is a sign of strength — and we must change policy to ensure that physicians seeking care will not suffer professional consequences for doing so.”
The AMA has made alleviating physician burnout a cornerstone of its strategic work for more than a decade, working at the system-level to remove the common barriers that interfere with patient care and often lead to burnout and dissatisfaction. Following AMA advocacy, President Biden this year signed into law the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, which will provide grants for training health profession students, residents, or health care professionals in evidence-informed strategies to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout, mental health conditions and substance use disorders. The grants aim to improve health care professionals’ well-being and job satisfaction. It also calls for an awareness campaign targeting health care professionals to encourage them to seek support and treatment for mental and physical challenges.
The AMA also is working at the state and national levels to reform outdated, stigmatizing language on medical licensing applications as well as employment and credentialing applications. In partnership with the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation and state medical societies, the AMA is seeking to remove questions that focus on “past diagnosis” and replace them with questions that only ask about “current impairment.” The AMA is furthering efforts this year to urge hospitals and health systems to undertake these essential reforms as well.
“To address burnout and stress, the AMA supports confidential wellness programs so physicians and physicians in-training can confidentially access coaching or counseling. Asking for help should not result in reprisals but a determination to find an evidence-based response,” Dr. Madejski said.