Virginia's Secret Mental Health Service Saves Doctors From Overwork

Virginia’s Secret Mental Health Service Saves Doctors From Overwork

It’s no secret that doctors are reluctant to seek help when they feel they are struggling with their mental health. While confidential support from the Physicians’ Health Program (PHP) assists physicians in Virginia and throughout the United States, physicians seeking care may sometimes benefit from more than one resource at the moment.

In addition to the fear of being stigmatized and judged harshly by their colleagues, many doctors worry that they will face repercussions from the medical board or their employers if they seek help. Many also worry that their mental health records could become discoverable in a lawsuit.

Executives from the Medical Association of Virginia (MSV) heard these concerns from hundreds of physicians and other physicians across their state as they embarked on a journey to build a program that would provide low-barrier access to mental health care and wellness-related services. MSV was not looking to replace the government language PHP, but rather complementary and secret services.

MSV’s trip eventually led to state lawmakers unanimously passing a first-of-its-kind law in 2020 that created a classified resource called SafeHaven. This is a program run by MSV where doctors can seek confidential help 24 hours a day, seven days a week to address job burnout or mental health issues. The law also ensures that information originating in SafeHaven is privileged.

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Physicians can access counseling services or peer support.

“This is one of the most important things the medical community has ever accomplished, and it makes a real difference for our doctors and their teams,” said Melina Davis, Executive Vice President and CEO of the Medical Association. “We really think having the two parts — protection and confidentiality, and highly experienced healthcare clinicians on the service side — is really important.”

The program was so successful that the Virginia legislature expanded the SafeHaven program in 2021 to include medical students, physician assistant students, nurse practitioners, nursing students, pharmacists, and pharmacy students.

Reducing physician burnout is a critical component of the AMA’s Physicians of America recovery plan.

Many American doctors suffer from fatigue. That’s why the AMA develops resources that prioritize well-being and highlight workflow changes so clinicians can focus on what matters – patient care.

The AMA recently updated its release brief,Confidential care to support physician health and wellness (PDF), Which It provides model legislative language and other policy actions recommended for states as well as new resources for state physicians and medical associations.

Among the updates are new provisions from a recently passed Arizona law to support physician welfare. They have increased laws passed in Virginia, South Dakota and Indiana that are specifically intended to protect physicians seeking help with job fatigue and wellness.

“Supporting the mental health of clinicians and medical students is essential to supporting the health of our nation,” said Jack Resnick, Jr., president of the AMA.


The SafeHaven program in Virginia shows that ensuring confidentiality and preventing professional fallout fills a void for physicians, other physicians, and students in difficulty, Davis said. “We are very supportive of PHP in our state, but we also recognized the need to offer multiple and open doors to confidential care. SafeHaven fits that perfectly.”

There are now more than 5,500 physicians and other physicians participating in the program.

Typically only 1% of physicians nationally use the physician wellness resources available to them. About 3% to 4% of nurses will use them and about 6% to 7% of the general public will use the resources.

“Our use is 48% among all groups,” Davis said.

Learn how states are helping doctors get the confidential care they deserve.

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Davis said a number of doctors have told MSV leaders that they are grateful to have someone to look out for.

For a female doctor in Virginia, being able to have a confidential 30-minute peer-to-peer phone call with a doctor in Atlanta helped her stay in medicine.

The doctor died several unvaccinated patients from complications from COVID-19 in a two-week period. She was urging these patients to get vaccinated before they got sick.

“He’s been crushing on her professionally,” Davis said. But “this coach, she said, helped her change her thinking about how she served, the ways she helped families, the ways she helped patients. She called us back to say, ‘I’ve spent 30 minutes on the phone with this coach and I think it saved my career.'” I can keep practicing. “

MSV executives are exploring other services they might add to SafeHaven to support clinicians, such as those focused on financial stress. They also work with hospital executives to earn their concrete commitment to help relieve fatigue. They are also working to ensure that the language associated with state licensing questions does not prevent physicians from saying they have sought help.

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