Physicians criticize California county leaders' report on employee mental health

Physicians who work at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif., are calling on Santa Clara County administrators to take further steps to prioritize employee mental health after the release of a report that they described as inadequate and superficial.

The county board of supervisors asked its county administrators on April 19 to report back in August "on options for the creation of a program to support mental health and wellness of Valley Medical Center employees," according to a letter shared with Becker's.

Specifically, the board asked administrators to report back "with a program that gives supervisors and managers the resources they need to recognize when staff need support, and to address that need, and should be advertised and available on VMC campuses whenever possible. This includes an assessment of existing resources, staff training to recognize and respond to burnout, identification of overly burdensome administrative tasks, continuous quality improvement, and metrics to track improvement of mental health and wellness. It should include participation from employees, and the staff bargaining units that represent them, at every step of the process."

Valley Physicians Group, which represents more than 450 physicians working in Santa Clara County's hospitals and clinics, also called attention to clinician well-being in July, when members gathered outside the hospital to raise awareness about chronic short staffing and unsafe patient workloads they said are leading to dangerous "moral injury" occurrences.

Now, physicians are criticizing the new report to the board.

In an Aug. 29 letter, which was shared with Becker's, Valley Physicians Group Chair Stephen Harris, MD, said Valley Medical never engaged Valley Physicians Group to prepare its report back. The letter also contends that the report "basically puts the onus back on the healthcare employee" with self-help tips and mental health phone numbers to places that often have limited access.

"In the face of growing physician concerns about severe understaffing and overwork, we can no longer tell physicians at VMC to just suck it up, put their noses more firmly to the grindstone," Dr. Harris wrote. "'Physician, heal thyself,' is an outdated and dangerous mantra that serves neither the physician nor the community and patients we serve."

In response to the letter, the hospital provided the following statement to Becker's: "The matters that are being raised are the subject of contract negotiations with the physicians group. The quality of care provided to our patients is a priority for the county health system, and we will continue to work with our physicians and staff to this end. We are hopeful that we can reach agreement with the physicians and move forward together."

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