October 29, 2020

ACEP Releases Poll on Emergency Physicians’ Mental Health

On Monday, ACEP released a poll conducted in conjunction with Morning Consult that finds that many emergency physicians are hesitant to seek mental health treatment despite the growing toll that serving on the frontlines of COVID-19 is having on them. ACEP officially announced the results of the poll at a press conference during ACEP20, our major annual conference (which ends today). ACEP’s new president, Mark Rosenberg, DO, MBA, FACEP, led the press conference, which included fellow speakers Jennifer and Corey Feist, the sister and brother-in-law of Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency physician who tragically died by suicide six months ago after treating COVID-19 patients and contracting the virus herself.

In a previous Regs & Eggs post, I talked about the high rates of career burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder among emergency physicians, and that while you should be encouraged to seek out mental health treatment when needed, many of you are legitimately afraid to do so out of fear of possibly losing your medical licenses or facing other professional setbacks. Unfortunately, the poll released this week puts hard numbers behind this extremely troubling reality. 

The poll shows that emergency physicians’ stress levels have dramatically increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than eight in ten (87 percent) of emergency physicians report feeling more stress since the start of COVID-19. Additionally, 72 percent report experiencing more professional burnout. The poll gives us the first authoritative look at the causes of stress or burnout on the frontlines since the start of COVID-19. Four in five emergency physicians cite concerns about family, friends, and personal health as causes for stress or burnout since the start of COVID-19. Further, three in five emergency physicians cite concerns for job or financial security and lack of personal protective equipment.

What is really worrisome about this information is that nearly half (45 percent) of emergency physicians report that they are not comfortable seeking mental health treatment if needed. Male emergency physicians are slightly more uncomfortable (48 percent) seeking mental health treatment than female emergency physicians (42 percent). Those in rural communities reported the highest intensity of feeling uncomfortable with seeking treatment (21 percent) compared with urban communities (12 percent) and suburban communities (15 percent).

One could wonder, why—if these issues are so prevalent—is it so hard to seek treatment? The poll shows that 71 percent of emergency physicians say they have “good” or “excellent” access to mental health treatment, which suggest that access itself is not a main barrier to emergency physicians deciding to seek mental health treatment. It is telling that when it comes to seeking mental health treatment, 73 percent of emergency physicians feel there is stigma in their workplace. Within that group, female, older, and rural emergency physicians report the highest level of stigma in their workplace.

These concerns put many emergency physicians in an impossible position of feeling they have to choose between their health and their career. Nearly three in five emergency physicians (57 percent) report they would be concerned for their job if they were to seek mental health treatment. In addition, more than a quarter (27 percent) report they have avoided seeking mental health treatment in fear of professional repercussions.

The time to change these disturbing trends and statistics is now. I’m proud that ACEP has made this issue a top priority. Earlier this year, ACEP met with The Joint Commission (TJC) to discuss current barriers physicians face seeking mental health treatment. Just a few short weeks later, TJC put out a statement encouraging organizations to not ask about past history of mental health conditions or treatment and supporting the elimination of policies that reinforce stigma and fear about the professional consequences of seeking mental health treatment. ACEP also spearheaded the development of a joint statement with over 40 leading medical organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, that outlines recommendations for removing existing barriers to seeking treatment, including the fear of reprisal and better encouraging professional support and non-clinical mental health initiatives, such as peer support, for physicians.

We are especially honored to have partnered with the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes' Foundation to advocate for legislation such as the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act and other efforts to dismantle barriers for physicians seeking mental health treatment. The legislation would take major steps to reduce and prevent suicide and burnout by creating behavioral health and well-being training programs. It would also support a national campaign to encourage health care professionals to seek support and treatment. ACEP also supports the bipartisan Coronavirus Health Care Worker Wellness Act of 2020, which would authorize the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to make grants that would establish or expand mental wellness programs for workers on the frontlines of COVID-19 .

ACEP will continue to advocate strongly for these important pieces of legislation. However, we need your help. The more voices that lend support to changing the status quo, the better our chances become to impact physicians’ lives, and in turn, strengthen patient care. If you wish share your experience, you can submit an anonymous story here.

Until next week, this is Jeffrey saying, enjoy reading regs with your eggs!

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