California physicians urge county leaders to address workplace issues

Physicians working in Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, Calif., are calling on Santa Clara County leaders to address their well-being amid concerns over staffing issues and physician mental health.

Chronic short staffing and unsafe patient workloads are leading to dangerous "moral injury" occurrences in the Santa Clara County health and hospital system, the Valley Physicians Group, which represents more than 450 physicians working in the system, said in a news release shared with Becker's.

The group said these occurrences — defined by experts as times "when clinicians are repeatedly expected, in the course of providing care, to make choices that transgress their long standing, deeply held commitment to healing" — prevent physicians from providing the best possible patient care while maintaining physician well-being.

Physicians are currently in contract negotiations with county management and, on July 19, gathered outside the hospital to raise awareness about these and other concerns, according to San José Spotlight.  As part of discussions over physician well-being, they have also called attention to the suicide of a colleague in May and another incident July 12 in which authorities said a physician, who is now under mental health evaluation, pointed a gun and knife at police.

Amid negotiations, the union is urging county leaders to address physician well-being by recruiting more adequate staff, devoting resources to mental health services, resetting expectations regarding physician workloads and collaborating with physicians to address ongoing workplace issues. 

"VPG physicians are dedicated to serving some of the most vulnerable members of our community, but we need the support of county leaders and hospital management to deliver the best care possible," VPG Chair Stephen Harris, MD, said in the release. "Instead, the county tries to squeeze as much as it can out of its publicly employed physicians while giving back as little as possible. Doctors are resilient, and no strangers to hard work and long hours. We are COVID-strong and COVID-tested, but there is a limit to how far we can be pushed, and we are being pushed too far right now."

Santa Clara Valley Medical Center referred Becker's to the County Executive's Office for any comment on labor issues. The executive's office told Becker's, "At the moment, the county is not commenting."

Valley Physicians Group also represents physicians at the California county's O'Connor Hospital in San Jose and St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy.  

Those seeking suicide prevention and mental health crisis services may contact 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Helpline.

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