WA Veterinarian Magazine
The Washington Physicians Health Program (WPHP) is an independent, nonprofit organization that serves as the provider recovery support program for doctoral level health care providers in the state of Washington. Like the general public, health care providers fall ill to health conditions that cause temporary functional impairment, such as bipolar mood disorder and substance use disorders. Should these conditions go untreated, ill healthcare providers place our state’s patients at high risk of preventable injury secondary to their impairment.
Veterinarians face a plethora of external stressors that may put them at increased risk of developing these conditions compared to the general population, including an increased potential for financial problems, professional isolation, staffing shortages (particularly for the solo practitioner), and the emotional toll of performing frequent euthanasia. Veterinarians also have relatively easy access to controlled substances.
Since 1986, WPHP has protected the people of the state of Washington by identifying healthcare providers at risk for impairment, getting them into successful treatment for their illness, and assisting with their recovery and safe return to work. The Department of Health (DOH) contracts with WPHP to provide crisis intervention, assessment, referral, recovery monitoring services for providers, and education for the medical community at large. By contract and by statute, WPHP is the qualified provider of services for potentially impaired MDs, DOs, PAs, DDSs, DPMs, DVMs, and students and residents of these disciplines.
What is WPHP?
WPHP is a support and monitoring program for healthcare providers who have a condition or illness that is impacting their personal and or professional life. The program seeks to create a safe harbor where healthcare providers can confidentially obtain the help they need. WPHP services include outreach, crisis intervention, informal assessment, treatment monitoring, advocacy, and guidance when a veterinarian needs help. WPHP also provides resources for families and employers.
When is WPHP able to help?
WPHP is a confidential resource for any health-related concern including: substance abuse, depression, stress-related illnesses and burnout, bipolar disorder, major anxiety issues, cognitive concerns, and other medical or emotional concerns. Veterinarians, their colleagues, and their family members can access WPHP services at any time.
When should I call WPHP?
We encourage concerned parties to call WPHP at the first sign that a veterinarian might be in need of assistance. WPHP staff members are available to answer questions when there are concerns about a veterinarian’s health, safety, or judgment and can provide guidance in what can be an uncomfortable situation. All healthcare providers licensed in the state of Washington are required to identify any other licensed provider who has a condition, physical or mental, that may affect his or her ability to practice with reasonable safety.
What happens when I call WPHP?
When someone calls WPHP, staff members are immediately available to confidentially discuss the presenting concerns and answer questions. If an appointment is appropriate, WPHP will ask the individual to meet with two to three WPHP staff members at its Seattle office, or WPHP staff members may go to the veterinarian or veterinary trainee to explore the reported concerns. There are no fees associated with an initial referral or meeting. After meeting with the veterinarian, WPHP is able to provide referrals for appropriate evaluation and treatment. If neither evaluation nor treatment is necessary, WPHP can endorse an immediate return to work. If treatment is indicated, WPHP monitors the individual’s treatment and his or her progress in recovery, providing support, resources, and advocacy for the veterinarian to appropriate parties. Throughout this process the veterinarian will not be reported to any disciplinary authority or outside agency unless he or she is clearly impaired and refuses to complete recommended medical treatment before returning to work. Doctors don’t get reported to the Board for being sick – they do get reported to the Board for being too sick to work but refusing to take leave, continuing to place their patients at unacceptable risk. Fortunately, these difficult situations are incredibly rare.
What is the goal of WPHP?
The goal of WPHP is to maintain a healthy population of veterinarians and to help them recover from their illnesses. The program supports the well-being of the veterinarian while protecting his or her professional status and the safety of his or her patients. If you have concerns that a veterinarian or veterinary trainee may be in need of assistance, please call WPHP toll-free at 1 (800) 552-7236.
How common are medical disorders among healthcare providers?
Recurrent depression strikes 18% of females and 12% of males in the U.S., healthcare providers included. Suicide rates are 2-4 times higher in veterinarians than they are in the general public. Rates of problematic substance use are elevated in veterinarians in part due to access issues and workplace stressors. Bipolar mood disorder strikes 1-3% of people in the U.S., including doctoral level healthcare providers. These illnesses can be fatal, and can cause acute impairment that threatens patient safety if not addressed early and aggressively.
How is WPHP funded?
WPHP is funded through a surcharge collected from the licensing fees of the healthcare providers served directly by this program. By statute (RCW 18.17.310 & RCW 18.71A.020), all funds deposited to the “impaired provider fund” surcharge must be used solely for implementation of the state’s impaired provider program. Licensed veterinarians pay $10/year into this fund. Every other type of discipline participating in WPHP pays $25-50/year into this fund.
How successful is WPHP?
WPHP is very successful. Roughly 95% of WPHP clients with a substance use disorder have a very successful outcome, as do 85% of WPHP clients with a significant mental illness.
WPHP keeps high demand providers in practice and improves access to care.
If untreated, substance use disorders, mental illness and physician burnout have high risk of causing premature retirement from healthcare professions. WPHP helps good providers safely continue their career, improving access to care. Workforce losses can financially decimate a small practice, particularly in rural areas of our state. In this economic climate, keeping the veterinarians we have is a good investment for our state.
How can WPHP help me if I don’t have one of these serious illnesses?
WPHP has been structured as an organization to rescue veterinarians and other providers with severe illnesses that are life and career-threatening. This service is needed, we think, by about 1-2% of the professional community. However, the rest of us are at risk of premature retirement and professional dissatisfaction due to psychological burnout. Multiple studies have shown that veterinarians are at very high risk for this phenomenon. Over the next several years, WPHP is piloting a new wellness program for providers throughout Washington State. These new services are oriented towards alleviating burnout in providers and protecting those who have yet to experience it. Our initial focus is on providing access to provider mindfulness meditation training. This is the lone evidence-based intervention in the medical literature that provides protection against provider burnout.
WPHP is a confidential resource for healthcare providers and their spouses, domestic partners, families, employers, and colleagues who have concerns that a provider may be in need of assistance. Confidentiality is one of the program’s most important components.
Have questions or concerns about you or a colleague? Call WPHP today. (800) 552-7236.