For two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated physician stressors, from burnout to disinformation, sometimes with tragic consequences. But physicians play a central role in changing the culture of medicine to support their own well-being, job satisfaction, and stigma-free access to mental and behavioral health services.
That was the take-home message of Healing the healer: Making advocacy personal, a Jan. 13 webinar hosted by the American Medical Association and presented by J. Corey Feist, co-founder of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, named after the New York emergency physician who died by suicide during the early stages of the pandemic.
At the state and local levels, the foundation has identified six regulatory barriers it believes violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and disincentivize physicians from seeking mental and behavioral health care. For example, some state licensure and hospital credentialing applications ask about prior mental health history, and a physician’s mental health history can be obtained in medical negligence lawsuits. Many hospital and health systems also require their staff physicians to use those systems’ medical services, which may make financial sense to those organizations but prompt confidentiality concerns for physicians.
“This is where we really need [physicians’] help,” Mr. Feist said during the webinar.
The foundation is calling on those in organized medicine to ask their state representatives to address these barriers. It also asks physicians and their employers to publish an institutional report card detailing the facts and dispelling any myths around mental health care.
Lorna Breen, MD, died by suicide in April 2020 after a three-week period in which she cared for COVID-19 patients at the height of the first surge, contracted the disease, and returned to an overwhelmed hospital. Dr. Breen was afraid seeking mental health care would cause her to lose her medical license.
After her death, Dr. Breen’s sister, Jennifer Breen Feist, and brother-in-law, Mr. Feist, founded the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation to reduce burnout among health care professionals and to prevent similar tragedies from occurring.
One of the foundation’s focus areas is advocacy. At the federal level, the foundation encourages physicians to thank their legislators for supporting the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, which has passed both houses of Congress and is now awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature. If signed into law, the act will direct $140 million toward programming to prevent suicide, burnout, and mental and behavioral health conditions.
Mr. Feist says the institutional report card could prevent physician suicides, since Dr. Breen was convinced, mistakenly, that seeking mental health care would have ended her career.
AMA President Gerald Harmon, MD, applauded the foundation’s work and encouraged physicians to see asking for help as a sign of strength rather than weakness. “It means we’re acting worthy of our profession,” he said.
Physicians can view a recording of the webinar by logging in to the AMA website. Learn more about the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation on its website.