In February 2020, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention launched a customized version of AFSP’s Interactive Screening Program (ISP) in collaboration with the Tennessee Medical Foundation (TMF) to be used by licensed health professionals served by the TMF’s Physician’s Health Program. You can read more about ISP, which connects individuals to mental health services before crises emerge, here.
A version of this article originally appeared as part of a series of success stories related to National Physician Suicide Awareness Day (NPSADay.org), which was created by The Physicians Foundation, Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes' Foundation and #FirstRespondersFirst.
An increase in mental health referrals to the Tennessee Medical Foundation (TMF) Physician’s Health Program (PHP) led the Foundation to begin searching for a more effective way to address those conditions. “As the number of mental health referrals began to rise, we saw the need to become more proactive in this area,” said TMF Medical Director Dr. Michael Baron. “There are known barriers to getting help for mental health problems among doctors and other licensed health professionals,” said TMF Executive Director Jennifer Rainwater. “Confidentiality and existing stigma over seeking help, fears of career implications, and the perceived time and cost involved are all factors that can stop them from reaching out when they probably need it the most,” she said.
To solve this issue, the TMF worked with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to customize their Interactive Screening Program (ISP) tool to create the Tennessee Professional Screening Questionnaire (TN-PSQ). The goal was to connect more people to the help they need before it escalated to a TMF PHP referral, intervention by employers or licensing board action. Two TMF psychiatric nurse practitioners were trained to review questionnaire results and the TN-PSQ was designed to have a customized response to each user.*
Information about the availability and usefulness of the TN-PSQ was incorporated into TMF newsletters, social media, in-person interactions and presentations to hospitals, medical groups, medical and health professional training schools, health care specialty organizations, state health licensing boards and grant organizations. TMF also worked with state licensing entities to ensure they consistently share the link to the screening tool to their licensees; each time they do, there is a surge of utilization on the site, which shows that they are reaching new health professionals and/or reminding them of the resource.
Health care stakeholders and organizations across the state enthusiastically embraced this resource on behalf of their providers. Although user information is anonymous, the data shows that the program is reaching individuals who need help but would not normally contact the TMF PHP outright, either out of fear or because they are unaware of its existence. It also shows TMF is reaching the right people – 85 percent of screeners were not already receiving care for their mental health.
There has been a shift in the perspective that health care organizations, physicians and other health professionals have about the TMF itself, seeing it more as a resource and not a punitive entity. The fearful/negative mindset has been in existence for decades and the connection with the TN-PSQ has helped overcome this.
*Due to a state law that categorizes this program as a peer review/quality improvement organization with special immunity protecting participant identities and records, TMF is unable to engage in actual treatment; because the TN-PSQ could be considered treatment, the screening tool was set up as a separate entity from the TMF to safeguard TMF’s Quality Improvement Committee (QIC) status.
“We cannot say enough about the value of this resource to the physicians and other health professionals we serve across Tennessee. This 24/7 anonymous tool addresses the fear, cost and other barriers for practicing and training health professionals; it is cost-effective to implement and operate; it provides a confidential source of help for medical staff members; and it has enhanced the profile and reputation of our program across Tennessee’s health care community as a credible and compassionate resource for those who are struggling.”