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StateImpact: Oklahoma Medical Groups Expand Free Therapy Program For Doctors Amid COVID-19 Fallout

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Financial struggles, family separation and other problems created even more risk factors for the state's physicians.

Dr. Mary Clarke says there’s an age-old problem: doctors don’t talk about their own problems.

“Physicians tend to be very, you know, ‘We can fix ourselves!’” Clarke said. “So we tend to be very quiet about our struggles, which is one of the reasons that we don’t typically ask for help, and we don’t typically do counseling and therapy. We have higher rates of alcoholism, suicide, suicide attempts and depression.”

She is the president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association. That group saw trouble coming. Doctors, who already tend to struggle with mental health, started dealing with something plaguing all of us for the past 18 months: the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, this has become almost a crisis because so many physicians have had to struggle with stress of taking care of patients, with loss of productivity, with, you know, potential financial disaster situations,” she said.

Frontline hospital doctors have, of course, been swamped. We’ve all heard the tragic — and traumatic — stories about seeing patients die in isolation, watching them say their last goodbyes to family via iPad. A less told story: many physicians weren’t swamped. At the beginning, hospitals and practices were downsizing. People weren’t coming in for regular appointments, they were delaying care.

“It was kind of a domino effect — like with any other business,” Clarke said. “And it’s not just the physicians. I mean, it was all medical staff across the board for a lot of places. A lot of places literally boarded their outpatient clinics.”

That financial strain hit hospitals and practices across the state, with some even laying off staff.

Oklahoma already had a few location-specific programs to help doctors get mental
health support. The medical societies in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties started them years ago, and they’ve been growing. As the pandemic hit, those groups, the Oklahoma State Medical Association and Telligen partnered to ensure access to support services statewide — to doctors who are and aren’t members of the trade groups.

The physician wellness program offers free, confidential psychological counseling to any M.D. or D.O. in Oklahoma. The eight free sessions come at no cost to the patient, and don’t have to be registered with health insurance. Doctors can simply register on the OSMA website.

Dr. Paul Tobin, a long time psychologist with decades of experience in employee assistance programs, is a provider for the service. He says the doctors needing sessions because of the pandemic so far have run the gamut — from seeing harsh financial hindrances to being completely overwhelmed with patients.

“Probably on both extremes, practices that were struggling as well as in practices that were just like, ‘I can’t breathe; there’s just so much going on,'” he said. “And then the impact of that just on their personal lives.”

Physicians, like many other professionals throughout the pandemic, have had to navigate family deaths, protecting vulnerable loved ones, finding child care with schools closed and more. But they also had unique problems.

“I mean, you had, sometimes, hospital-based physicians who had to live separately from their families because of the fear of exposing their families,” he said. “And so you had families who were partially separated, not for any other reason other than health reasons. And so it’s just kind of helping people cope with what are all the different kind of factors.”

Doctors can face one of the same hangups that all people who are responsible for caring for others do: feeling selfish for taking time out. Clearly they know care is important.

“God, that’s what physicians do, you know,” he said. “It’s that old joke of the cobbler’s kids having holes in their shoes. I really can’t be selfless — which is basically me being absolutely 100 percent present to you — when I’ve got my own hair on fire. And so I can only be selfless when I do good self care.”

Tobin says regrouping, seeking help and healing — they’re not selfish. They’re critical.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

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