By James Schack, M.D.
Family Medicine Physician
President, Northern Kentucky Medical Society
I was very grateful to see Senate Bill 12 pass unanimously through both chambers this session. This piece of KMA priority legislation was signed last week by the Governor and will become law. The new law encourages physicians to seek care when needed through a wellness program and ensures that a record of a physician’s participation in such a program is confidential and has legal protections. I went to Frankfort during Physicians’ Day at the Capitol to advocate for this bill among others. I was particularly interested in supporting SB12 because of a personal experience I had, which may be similar to something many of you have experienced during your career.
Last year I was called by a neighbor for urgent help for her family member who had attempted suicide. The family had already called 911, but due to living in a rural area, response time was likely to be 15-20 minutes. I quickly drove over to their home to provide aid. As I entered the room, the scene was traumatic due to the manner of the suicide attempt. I did everything any of you would do at such a scene. I quickly felt for a pulse, which was faint, I assessed and stabilized injuries, reassessed a few seconds later for a pulse, which was now difficult to feel. I began administering CPR while waiting for the EMS to arrive and transfer her to a local hospital. Due to the traumatic nature of the attempt, I called ahead to the hospital to give the ER physicians there an idea of what was on their way. I then tried to console the family and returned home. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter I was contacted by the family that the person had succumbed to their injuries.
When I returned home, I walked from my garage to the trash can to discard most of my clothes and shoes. My wife, who knew I was responding to the situation, met me in the garage. One of the first things she said to me was, “Are you ok?” It was a simple, straight-forward response. I work in outpatient primary care but I had been part of hundreds of code blues and rapid response during residency just a few years ago. I told her it was a difficult situation but, “I think I’ll be fine.”
Over the next few days I went through my normal routine at work and debriefed the experience with a colleague. I just tried to make things feel as normal as possible. But my wife could tell things weren’t quite normal. A few days after the event, she suggested I do a session of counseling. My first thought and response to that idea was, “Well, I might have to disclose that on my medical licensing form next year if I do that.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I saw the look on my wife’s face and I realized how ridiculous of an argument that was. My wife cared about making sure her husband and father of our three kids was okay. I was worried about a box on a licensing form more than I was worried about taking care of myself. Later that night I scheduled a counseling session and went a few days later. I found the experience helpful. I talked through what made the situation different from all those residency codes, and felt much better after emotionally debriefing beyond the “medical debrief” I did with a colleague the day afterward.
A recent KMA member survey found more than half (54%) of physicians indicated that they feel more stress now than before the pandemic. However, mental health continues to carry a stigma. And unfortunately, healthcare providers are some of the least likely groups to seek care for mental health. This new law is an important part of helping remove that stigma.
Checking a box on a licensing form shouldn’t be a barrier for someone receiving the care they need. As physicians, we are blessed with the opportunity to walk with our patients during some of the best moments of their life, such as the birth of a child, but we are also holding their hand on some of the worst days of their lives, like a cancer diagnosis three weeks before Christmas. Sometimes we are called into action on the side of the road to help people in a car accident, sometimes there is an overhead page on a plane, sometimes there’s an announcement at a kid's sporting event, sometimes it’s a phone call from a neighbor.
I am grateful for SB12 and Senator Donald Douglas, M.D., who sponsored the bill. We have to care for ourselves and care for each other. So if you or one of your colleagues is struggling with the mental weight of our profession, or just life in general, seek out the help you need and deserve. It’s easier and more confidential in Kentucky than ever before.