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Health care workers often don't seek help for themselves. A bill aims to change the culture.

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Among health care workers, there’s a culture of not seeking help for their own anxiety or depression, said Clark Barrineau of the Medical Society of Virginia. Concerned that receiving counseling could threaten their careers, doctors and nurses often choose to tough it out, causing them to burn out or retire early.

Companion bills gaining approval in the House and Senate are designed to fix the issue. Senate Bill 970 and House Bill 1573 would change the mental health questions the state asks on licensure applications. Subcommittees in both legislative bodies have voted unanimously in favor.

Currently, the Virginia Board of Medicine asks doctors seeking licensure if they have any mental health condition or impairment that affects their ability to do their job.

The problem with the current wording, Barrineau says, is that it implies a condition and an impairment are one and the same. And it’s hard to define “condition.”

Health care workers tend to avoid counseling or therapy, afraid they’ll be diagnosed with anxiety and lose their license.

A Virginia doctor, Lorna Breen, died by suicide in 2020. Her brother-in-law, J. Corey Feist, told Congress that Breen was convinced she would lose her license or face ostracism from colleagues if she received mental health care.

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“They’re not getting the help they need,” Barrineau said of health care workers in the state. “Our providers are not taken care of themselves.”

To remedy the situation, the bill calls for licensure applications to ask if the applicant has any reason to believe he or she would pose a risk to the safety or well-being of the patient or client. Applications would also ask if the applicant is able to perform the functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

The bill is marked as emergency legislation, meaning it would go into effect immediately after its passage. It would affect all types of health care workers in the state, including midwives, dentists and pharmacists.

The measure does not stop health systems from asking invasive questions on their credentialing applications. But the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association has pledged to follow suit. Hospital systems within the VHHA are in various stages of implementing the new wording, according to a spokesperson for the association.

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Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, health systems and more for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 and spent 11 years in the Sports section. (804) 649-6109

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