These are extraordinary times for the entire world, and especially for health care workers. The effects of COVID-19 not only will change the delivery of health care services; they will change the health care workers who are providing care.

Many health care employees are silently struggling. We all need support and need a place to be heard, especially now that this pandemic has dramatically changed our lives. Physicians, physician assistants (PAs) and their families in particular need that place to be safe without fear of repercussions and they need it to be available as soon as possible.

The American Medical Association found an overall physician burnout rate of 42% across the country. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly increased this number. Physicians are on the front lines of something that has not happened in our lifetimes. We are seeing our patients die alone, our coworkers becoming ill, and we fear for our lives and the lives of our families every day.

These are our current day-to-day realities. They are changing the way we see medicine and might be having detrimental effects on our mental health. In addition to what’s listed above, a lack of control over many of these factors impacts physicians and PAs, adding to the distress that they might already be experiencing.

Even if physicians are struggling, the fear of not being able to continue to help their patients or even hurting their career can prevent them from asking for necessary help. Many physicians believe that if they disclose personal mental health concerns, their employer might legally be required to report them to the Board of Medicine. This prevents hundreds of physicians from getting needed mental health services. Some physicians unfortunately feel like they have no alternative and as a result, an increasing number of physicians are dying by suicide.

The Medical Society of Virginia (MSV) and the Department of Health Professions, along with the Board of Medicine, understood this is an issue costing too many lives and creating needless suffering, as well as silently impacting the lives of thousands of patients. With their guidance, MSV worked to pass emergency legislation that protects physicians and PAs who seek resources for their mental health.

During the 2020 General Assembly Session, House Bill 115 (carried by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington) and Senate Bill 120 (carried by Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax) successfully passed both chambers and were signed by the governor. These bills create a safe haven for physicians and PAs outside of their employer, where they can seek the support they need for burnout, anxiety, depression or many other situations they might face. The bill has provided an avenue for MSV to create a program for these health care workers to improve the health care of all Virginians.

These services are more necessary than ever. Physicians and their families are struggling. The effects of COVID-19 have impacted the health care workers who are providing care, and this pandemic has changed our lives forever. We need the ability to safely seek support. We need a lifeline. And we appreciate the administration and our advocates who made this a possibility in Virginia.

We still have a long way to go and this road is far from over. But Virginia is one step closer to helping protect physicians, and giving them the necessary tools and resources to get essential mental health support. The MSV is thankful for the support of physicians and physician assistants, and all Virginians as we work to continue to make Virginia’s health care the best in the world.

Dr. Terri Babineau is the volunteer chief medical officer for SafeHaven, The Medical Society of Virginia’s physician wellness program. Contact her at: safehaven@msv.org

If you or someone you know is struggling, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at: (800) 273-8255

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