Outpatient mental health and substance use visits among physicians increased substantially during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a population-level cohort study of physicians in Ontario, Canada. Researchers published their findings in JAMA Network Open.
“Physician mental health may have worsened during the pandemic,” researchers advised, “highlighting a potential greater requirement for access to mental health services and system level change.”
The study included 34,055 practicing physicians covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan. Investigators looked at outpatient visits related to mental health and substance use both before and during the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the study, the annual rate of outpatient mental health and substance use visits by physicians increased 27% during the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic compared with the previous 12 months—from 816.8 to 1037.5 per 1000 physicians. After adjustment for demographic and physician characteristics, as well as a history of mental health care use, visits increased an average 13% per physician.
Physicians without a mental health and substance use history showed relative increases that were significantly greater compared with physicians with a prior mental health and substance use history, the study found. Increases in visit frequency were also larger, although not statistically so, for female physicians and rural physicians. No notable differences in visit changes, however, were found between physicians who provided acute care to patients with COVID-19 and physicians who did not.
“Future research should focus on longer term outcomes associated with the pandemic and explore associated risk and protective factors for physicians’ mental health to better target interventions,” the authors concluded.
Myran DT, Cantor N, Rhodes E, et al. Physician health care visits for mental health and substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, Canada. JAMA Netw Open. Published online January 21, 2022. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021