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Health care workers push for their own confidential mental health treatment

Katheryn Houghton, KFF Health News on

Published in News & Features

States are redefining when medical professionals can get mental health treatment without risking notifying the boards that regulate their licenses.

Too often, health care workers wait to seek counseling or addiction treatment, causing their work and patient care to suffer, said Jean Branscum, CEO of the Montana Medical Association, an industry group representing doctors.

“They’ve invested so much time in their career,” Branscum said. “To have anything jeopardize that is a big worry on their mind.”

Montana, like other states, has a recovery program for health professionals who have a substance use disorder or mental illness. However, medical associations say such programs often come with invasive monitoring, even for voluntary care. And gray areas about when a mental illness should become public breeds fear that seeking care jeopardizes a medical career.

Montana is among the states looking to boost confidential care for health professionals as long as they’re not deemed a danger to themselves or patients. In recent years, at least a dozen states have considered or created confidential wellness programs to offer clinicians help early on for career burnout or mental health issues. States have also reworked medical licensing questions to avoid scrutiny for providers who need mental health treatment. The changes are modeled after Virginia legislation from 2020.

During a legislative committee meeting last month, advocates for Montana medical professionals asked state lawmakers to follow Virginia’s lead. They say the goal is twofold: to get clinicians treatment before patients are at risk and to curtail the workforce burnout that’s partly fueled by untreated stress.

 

Montana’s existing medical monitoring program, the Montana Recovery Program, is run by the global company Maximus. Montana’s professional advocates had backed another nonprofit to run Montana’s program, which didn’t win the state contract.

The Montana Recovery Program declined a request for an interview, instead referring KFF Health News to the Montana Department of Labor & Industry, which oversees the state’s medical licensing boards. Department staffers didn’t comment by deadline.

In a Medscape survey released this year, 20% of physicians said they felt depressed, with job burnout as a leading factor. The majority said confiding in other doctors wasn’t practical. Some said they might not tell anyone about their depression out of fear people would doubt their abilities, or that their employer or medical board could find out.

Health professionals are leaving their jobs. They’re retiring early, reducing work hours, or switching careers. That further dwindles patients’ care options when there already aren’t enough providers to go around. The federal government estimates 74 million people live in an area without enough primary care services due to a workforce shortage.

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©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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