November 18, 2021, 11:13 a.m. — Next week is a time when many of us pause to give thanks. At the top of my gratitude list: each of you, for the tremendous work you’ve done this year for your patients and your communities as we continue to fight a deadly pandemic.
I know your labors haven’t come without a price. Many of you have suffered from the financial, emotional and mental toll of the past 20 months. Pushback and polarization, sometimes political, frequently emotional and often involving misinformation, present serious obstacles for all of us as we work to protect and heal Americans. And to say it is exhausting is an understatement.
AAFP Board Chair Ada Stewart, M.D., of Columbia, S.C., shared her thoughts on the stress and exhaustion we are each facing as she was wrapping up her presidential term. The need for such support is critical among family physicians, a fact that Dr. Stewart acknowledged in her August message while pointing to Academy member resources. With that in mind, I want to update you on the Academy’s work.
The AAFP’s Physician Health First initiative is a unique, interactive resource centered on your well-being. We have assembled it to help you address, as the homepage says without sugarcoating our reality, “the causes of physician burnout, including the broken U.S. health care system, the organizations employing physicians, the practice environment, individual well-being, and a physician culture of self-sacrifice over self-care.”
If you’ve checked in with that page recently, you may have noticed that we just wrapped up the application process for the 2022 cohort of Leading Physician Well-being, a tuition-free certificate program from the AAFP and United Health Foundation designed to develop physician leadership skills and thus improve workplace well-being. Next year’s LPW group, who will be notified in December, will include 100 family physicians. I’m grateful for their interest in this program and excited for their learning.
We have all also witnessed the toll COVID-19 has taken on the mental health of our patients, and the Academy continues to shine a light on this issue as well.
“In 2019, more than 19 million people — nearly 8% of adults in the United States — had at least one episode of depression, and at least half that number were diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, according to federal data,” The Washington Post reported last month. The paper was offering context for the CDC’s important recent addition of mental health disorders to two lists: populations at high risk for severe coronavirus illness and those eligible to receive third COVID-19 vaccination doses.
The story also notes that, for clinicians, “the mind-body connection … is long-settled research.” I agree, and will be more specific and say that, for primary care physicians, the pandemic has boldly underscored the need to collaboratively integrate physical and mental health care in as many practices as possible — as the Academy has steadily advocated.
In the wake of COVID-19, this is especially pressing for our youngest patients.
“The need to better integrate mental health care and primary care for children and adults has never been more urgent,” I said in a recent statement calling on lawmakers to understand children’s mental health as an emergency and to prioritize mental health care for children and families.
I know that you’ve been in an emergency zone for a long time now. Professionally and personally, you’ve dealt with frustration and loss, made sacrifices, grieved. Yet you’ve also continued to practice, often on the front lines, and have always eased in others the very anxieties we’ve each privately labored against in ourselves.
Together, we continue to reckon with the events of the past 20 months. Please know that your Academy is committed to supporting each of you as we move toward a period of shared recovery and restored resilience. We’re lobbying on behalf of your practices for better policy, and we’re investing in educational programming and resources to help you. It’s the least we can do for you, those who have done your most.
I am grateful every day for each of you. My wish for your holiday next week is that you can take a well-deserved break enjoying those you love. Happy Thanksgiving!
Sterling Ransone, M.D., is president of the AAFP.