How the opt-out approach works
“The idea is by making it opt-out, you really normalize it,” says Maneesh Batra, MD, MPH, associate director of the University of Washington, Seattle, Children’s Hospital residency program. Similar approaches have proven effective at shaping human behavior in other health care settings, including boosting testing rates for HIV and increasing immunization rates for childhood vaccines, Dr. Batra says.
In general, opt-out programs acknowledge that people are busy and won’t take that extra step or click that extra button if they don’t have to, says Oana Tomescu, MD, PhD, associate professor of clinical medicine and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
In 2018, Dr. Sofka and her colleagues at WVU conducted a survey that showed that a majority of residents thought favorably of their opt-out program and said they would return to counseling for follow-up care. In their most recent study, published in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education in 2021, Dr. Sofka and her colleagues found that residents did just that – only 8 of 239 opted out of universally scheduled visits. Resident-initiated visits increased significantly from zero during the 2014-2015 academic year to 23 in 2018-2019. Between those periods, program-mandated visits decreased significantly from 12 to 3.
The initiative has succeeded in creating a culture of openness and caring at WVU, says 2nd-year internal medicine resident Nistha Modi, MD. “It sets the tone for the program – we talk about mental health openly,” says Dr. Modi.
Crucially, the counselors work out of a different building than the hospital where Dr. Modi and her fellow residents work and use a separate electronic medical record system to protect resident privacy. This is hugely important for medical trainees, note Dr. Tomescu, Dr. Gold, and many other experts. The therapists understand residency and medical education, and there is no limit to the number of visits a resident or fellow can make with the program counselors, says Dr. Modi.
Opt-out programs offer a counterbalance to many negative tendencies in residency, says Dr. Meeks. “We’ve normalized so many things that are not healthy and productive. … We need to counterbalance that with normalizing help seeking. And it’s really difficult to normalize something that’s not part of a system.”
Costs, concerns, and systematic support
Providing unlimited, free counseling for trainees can be very beneficial, but it requires adequate funding and personnel resources. Offering unlimited access means that an institution has to follow through in making this degree of care available while also ensuring that the system doesn’t get overwhelmed or is unable to accommodate very sick individuals, says Dr. Gold.
Another concern that experts like Dr. Batra, Dr. Moffit, and Dr. Gold share is that residents who go to their scheduled appointments may not completely buy into the experience because it wasn’t their idea in the first place. Participation alone doesn’t necessarily indicate full acceptance. Program personnel don’t intend for these appointments to be thought of as mandatory, yet residents may still experience them that way. Several leading resident well-being programs instead emphasize outreach to trainees, institutional support, and accessible mental health resources that are – and feel – entirely voluntary.
“If I tell someone that they have to do something, it’s very different than if they arrive at that conclusion for themselves,” says Dr. Batra. “That’s how life works.”
When it comes to cost, a recent study published in Academic Medicine provides encouraging data. At the University of Colorado, an opt-out pilot program for IM and pediatrics interns during the 2017-2018 academic year cost just $940 total, equal to $11.75 per intern. As in West Virginia, the program in Colorado covered the cost of the visit, interns were provided a half day off (whether they attended their appointment or not), and the visits and surveys were entirely optional and confidential. During the 1-year pilot program, 29% of 80 interns attended the scheduled appointment, 56% opted out in advance, and 15% didn’t show up. The majority of interns who were surveyed (85%), however, thought the program should continue and that it had a positive effect on their wellness even if they didn’t attend their appointment.
In West Virginia, program costs are higher. The program has $20,000 in annual funding to cover the opt-out program and unlimited counseling visits for residents and fellows. With that funding, Dr. Sofka and her colleagues were also able to expand the program slightly last year to schedule all the critical care faculty for counseling visits. Cost is a barrier to expanding these services to the entire institution, which Dr. Sofka says she hopes to do one day.
Research in this area is still preliminary. The WVU and Colorado studies provide some of the first evidence in support of an opt-out approach. Eventually, it would be beneficial for multicenter studies and longitudinal research to track the effects of such programs over time, say Dr. Sofka and Ajay Major, MD, MBA, one of the study’s coauthors and a hematology/oncology fellow at the University of Chicago.
Whether a program goes with an opt-out approach or not, the systematic supports – protecting resident privacy, providing flexible scheduling, and more – are crucial.
As Dr. Tomescu notes, wellness shouldn’t be just something trainees have to do. “The key with really working on burnout at a huge level is for all programs and schools to recognize that it’s a shared responsibility.”
“I felt very fortunate that I was able to get some help throughout residency,” says Dr. Modi. “About how to be a better daughter. How to be content with things I have in life. How to be happy, and grateful. With the kind of job we have, I think we sometimes forget to be grateful.”
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