Study shows increase in healthcare visits among physicians for mental health and substance use during COVID-19 pandemic

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A recent Canadian study linked the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) with a substantial increase in healthcare visits for substance abuse and mental health among physicians.

The study was led by Daniel T. Myran, MD, MPH, of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and published in JAMA Network Open. Myran and his team of researchers set out to explore the association between physician outpatient care visits for mental health and substance abuse issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. Using heath administrative data from Ontario, Canada’s universal health system (Ontario Health Insurance Plan) the study gathered outpatient data on 34, 055 physicians, residents, and fellows from March 1, 2017, to March 10, 2021. Among the participants, 52 percent were male, 48 percent were female, and the mean age was 41 years old.

Each of the subjects were enrolled in the Ontario Health Insurance Plan during the study period and registered with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) between the years of 1990 and 2018. CPSO granted the study team access to deidentified records of physician healthcare visits. This information was tracked by a specialized group formerly known as the Institute for Clinical and Evaluative Sciences, to evaluate and improve Canada’s healthcare system.

The study results showed per 1,000 physicians, the annual crude number of mental health or substance abuse related outpatient visits increased by 27 percent from March 2017 to March 2021. Additionally, researchers found the percentage of physicians with one or more healthcare visits concerning mental health or substance abuse within a year increased from 12.3 percent pre-pandemic to 13.4 percent during the pandemic. The increase in mental health and substance abuse visits among physicians with no history of these types of visits was significantly greater than those with a history of mental health and substance abuse problems prior to the pandemic.  The study found no significant differences in outpatient visits among male and female physicians.

This study indicates an association between the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in mental health and substance abuse related healthcare visits among physicians, suggesting the pandemic worsened the mental health of physicians. These results highlight the need for adequate mental health resources and better self-care strategies for physicians.