Dr. Trudy Shahady was feeling burnt out. It was during the height of the pandemic, and three unvaccinated patients had died of COVID-19 in the span of one week.
She needed help, she decided. So she called a program that existed nowhere else in the country — one that allows doctors to seek therapy without putting their careers in jeopardy.
For years, doctors have feared that if they seek help for stress, depression or anxiety, they will be labeled unfit to do their jobs and lose their licenses. Lawyers could also use the information against them in a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Virginia was the first state to change these laws, ensuring that doctors and other health care workers can seek help without fear. Now, the initiative is going national. The Medical Society of Virginia has expanded it to other states, hoping to fight the shortage of health care workers besetting the industry.
It was “life-changing” not having to choose between her career and her mental health, said Shahady, a family medicine doctor at the Forest-based Central Virginia Family Physicians.
Burnout in health care was a problem long before the pandemic. The Medical Society of Virginia began seeing an uptick in 2018 — increased administrative tasks, patient quotas and uneven work-life balances were cited as causes.
But doctors are reluctant to seek counseling or therapy, because licensing applications in Virginia and elsewhere asked doctors whether they had any conditions that could affect their work and if they ever sought therapy. It was too big a risk to be diagnosed as “depressed.”
“It came down to fear,” said Melina Davis, CEO of the Medical Society of Virginia.
One doctor from Virginia, Lorna Breen, died by suicide in 2020. A member of her family told Congress that Breen was sure she would lose her license or face ostracism from colleagues for receiving mental health treatment. One study determined that doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession in the country.
Burnout has only increased since the pandemic as many hospital staffs remain depleted.
“We are losing providers left and right,” Davis said.
There are three ways in which the Medical Society of Virginia sought to protect doctors’ mental health records…