National Academy of Medicine’s new plan: See health care workers as ‘whole people’

Cultural changes, research and the destigmatizing of mental health necessary, according to plan

“Health workers who find joy, fulfillment, and meaning in their work can engage on a deeper level with their patients, who are at the heart of health care,” the National Academy of Medicine wrote in its National Plan for Health Workforce Well-Being.

However, the plan states, 54% of U.S. nurses and physicians, 60% of medical students and residents, and 61% of pharmacists have symptoms of burnout.

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NAM’s report, released Monday, focuses on how to combat this through cultural changes, research and the destigmatizing of mental health.

During Monday’s launch, MedPage Today reported, Dr. Darrell Kirch, president emeritus of the Association of American Medical Colleges and a former dean of two medical schools, talked about his former students who died by suicide, and “none of them sought help. Clearly, in retrospect, they were depressed, (but) they were afraid to admit the distress they were in.”

The stigma of having a mental health issue, Kirch said, is exacerbated by credentialing and licensing applications, which continue to ask professionals if they’ve ever had a problem.

“What a grossly inappropriate question. The (right) question is, ‘Are you medically fit to practice?’ Period,” MedPage Today reported Kirch as saying.

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One recommendation from the plan is to make help more accessible to health care workers by increasing telemedicine options and the hours those options are available. This would benefit not only nurses who work long shifts, but also those in remote regions who can’t just pop out for a session during lunch.

For NAM’s plan to work, it noted, the culture needs to change.

“It’s about changing how we think about the people who are there delivering care and keeping our communities safe,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said. “It’s about seeing them as whole people and not simply as skill sets.”

Everyone talks about “the whole patient,” he added, but we have to remember the “whole health worker ... and we don’t do that.”

“We tell our health workers that their strength is defined primarily by how many papers they can publish, and how many facts they can remember, how many hours they can stay up, and how hard they can work without complaining,” Murthy said, according to MedPage Today. “That is only a shadow of what real true strength is.”

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A third priority of the plan is to invest in research. Kirch said studies of health care workers’ mental well-being should be approached the same as those for the rest of the population — with significant funding.

“In a nearly $4 trillion-a-year health system, there should be money available to invest in the well-being of the workers,” he argued Monday.

The National Academy of Medicine is one of three academies that make up the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

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