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Pandemic Burnout and Disability Insurance

By Courtney Lee 12:13 pm MDT 10/27/2020

A September 2020 study from a group of U.S. and Swedish researchers indicated a higher-than-normal level of burnout for healthcare professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic, as compared to other years. The study included 2,707 professionals from more than 60 countries and found that 51% of providers were experiencing burnout. Here in the U.S., a 2020 report by the Society of Critical Care Medicine surveyed 9,492 intensive care unit clinicians and found that median levels of self-reported stress increased from 3 to 8 (on a 0 to 10 scale) as the pandemic unfolded.

According to The American Journal of Medicine, research regarding physician burnout is variable due to a lack of agreed-upon terminology. However, it is generally thought to hover between 40-50% of physicians during an average year. It is also thought to be most prevalent among physicians aged 45 to 54 – an age of peak income and productivity – and to regularly transition into major depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. In fact, burnout-related depression appears to be more common for physicians than for other types of professionals. This statistic has only gotten worse with the pandemic.

Because burnout can lead to a mental health disorder and/or a substance abuse problem, it is important for insurance brokers to discuss disability insurance with their clients. Suppose pandemic-related stress leads to severe emotional anguish that disables the healthcare professional on a short- or long-term basis. Will the healthcare professional’s existing disability insurance policy provide sufficient income replacement during recovery? Will it provide a benefit payout at all?

Many disability insurance policies are not good enough for healthcare professionals.

Healthcare professionals are a unique bunch. They have high-income levels, usually comprised of multiple income sources, and sometimes own practices and manage heavy debt from student loans. Like many other professionals, their financial solvency relies on their ability to work. Unlike many other professionals, losing the ability to work affects more than just the physician’s capacity to support themselves and their family; it sometimes affects the solvency of a medical practice or the physician’s ability to meet their loan repayment obligations.

Physicians are also unique because they regularly specialize in a particular area of medicine that is razor-thin in its definition. Examples include broader specialties like anesthesiology, neurology, emergency medicine, and radiation oncology, and more specific sub-specialties like neuroradiology, medical toxicology, congenital cardiac surgery, and hematology. Healthcare professionals need disability insurance that uses a narrow and specific definition of disability. Under this type of definition, a claimant’s CPT/CDT-coded procedures determine disability. If the claimant’s disability prevents the claimant from performing even one of their regularly performed CPT-coded procedures, they are considered totally disabled. Individual disability insurance (IDI) policies and certain IDI-like group long-term disability policies provide this specificity level.

Beyond this important policy definition, Mental & Nervous and Drug & Alcohol (MNDA) coverage must be part of the disability insurance conversation – even in non-pandemic years, when burnout is already high. Healthcare professionals benefit most from disability policies that offer:

MNDA benefits

Some long-term disability (LTD) policies will not cover preexisting conditions, like major depression or anxiety disorders, and many MNDA disabilities can be recurring in nature.

No lifetime max on benefits

Many LTD policies cap MNDA benefits at 24 months, which is insufficient for the field of medicine and its higher levels of stress.

“Per occurrence” coverage

Policies with this specific language can pay benefits if the physician suffers a relapse or if the disability caused by burnout manifests differently.

Some LTD policies may also require stringent proof of a disability to start paying out on the claim. If an insurer requires examinations or rigorous interviews to pay on an MNDA-related incident, healthcare professionals can face an undesired compounding of additional stress and pressure.

Make sure your healthcare clients are financially prepared for burnout.

COVID-19 has opened many people’s eyes to the importance of coverage for all types of disabilities, both physical and mental. However, overworked healthcare professionals may have neglected to review their plans to make sure their expectations for policy payouts align with their contracts’ reality. Questions to ask your clients during the pandemic and beyond to ensure adequate coverage for burnout-related disabilities include:

  • Do all of their disability insurance policies offer MNDA coverage?
  • Are the coverage amounts high enough to replace all income and cover any business expenses or student loans?
  • Will the policies pay benefits on a relapse under the MDNA provisions? In what timeframe?
  • Will the policies cover all possible mental and physical conditions that could be attributed to burnout and extreme work stress?
  • Are there any preexisting condition exclusions that may affect their ability to collect benefits if they become disabled due to burnout?

Benefit advisors can earn their clients’ trust by working on grasping the realities of their day-to-day lives, their risks, and how much coverage they need. Consider this. The American Journal of Medicine cites specific concerns about burnout rates for the following healthcare professionals: family physicians, emergency room physicians, psychiatrists, anesthesiologists, cardiologists, radiologists, general internists, dermatologists, oncologists, general surgeons, gastroenterologists, trauma surgeons, obstetrician-gynecologists, and physiatrists.

Until healthcare professionals become more comfortable seeking early treatment without the fear of stigmas or professional repercussions, and until their workloads decrease to the point where they can take time to care for themselves, burnout will continue to be a risk factor for disability in the healthcare industry. Make sure your clients are covered through comprehensive disability plans you know are tailored to their specific needs.

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