On Friday, President Joe Biden signed the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act into law.
The law will direct $140 million over the next 3 years to training healthcare providers on suicide prevention strategies and behavioral health, promoting self-care and the importance of seeking help, and scaling best practices.
For the family of Lorna Breen, MD, an emergency medicine physician who died by suicide in April 2020, and for the countless other healthcare workers struggling with the emotional toll their jobs continue to take during the ongoing pandemic, it signifies hope.
“This is the first-ever law looking out for the well-being of the healthcare workforce, specifically,” Corey Feist, JD, MBA, Breen’s brother-in-law, and president and co-founder of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, told MedPage Today. “This is an incredible first step in recognizing that the well-being of the workforce is a critical part of PPE, if you will.”
“This is a recognition that they are seen and they are heard, and that we are all going to collectively step into this arena and address this issue together,” he added.
The Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation has advocated tirelessly for the law, as well as for ongoing efforts to reduce burnout, administrative burdens, and other stressors that continue to plague healthcare professionals as COVID-19 persists.
“When the unspeakable happens to you, and you speak about it, others have permission to speak up too,” Feist said.
He noted several benefits that the new law will provide. First, $103 million in grants have already been awarded to dozens of health systems across the country. It will be important to stay connected to these health systems to help them share information with each other and other facilities in order to scale efforts, he said.
Additionally, there is a national awareness campaign to shed light on ways to address mental health among the healthcare workforce, which could aid in developing future policy.
“In order to take care of patients, you have to take care of yourself,” Feist noted.
He highlighted the incredible tragedy of many doctors and nurses leaving the workforce, and the shortage of healthcare workers overall. Healthcare workers have so much self-identity in their profession, he said. Many of them decide early on in childhood that they want to devote their lives to helping others.
“You are never not a doctor, not a nurse, once you achieve that,” he added. For many to “think about doing something else, it’s really for their own self-preservation. It’s tragic.”
Lorna Breen had always wanted to be an emergency medicine physician in New York City, according to the foundation that now bears her name. She spent her career practicing at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, becoming the director of the emergency department at the Allen Hospital in 2008.
“She believed that medicine, and helping people, was her calling,” the foundation said. “She was passionate about patient care and was always looking for ways to improve the patient experience.”
Breen was researching and writing about ways to improve healthcare operations up until just before the pandemic, Feist recalled.
Then, in April 2020, at the height of the first surge of COVID-19 that hit New York City especially hard, Breen called her sister saying she was unable to move after working 12+-hour shifts and not sleeping in over a week. According to the foundation, Breen was afraid to get help, fearing doing so would jeopardize the career she had spent her whole life working to achieve. Her family said that she had no prior mental health issues, and that it wasn’t until after her death that they realized she had one major risk factor for suicide — being a physician. Each year, hundreds of physicians die by suicide.
Feist said that, for Breen, the new law would extend her deep caring for her colleagues, just like she cared for her patients.
However, his work, and that of the foundation, isn’t done.
“A critical component here is going to be the culture change that is needed,” he said. “And while we can work on regulatory barriers, and we can work at developing best practices, hospitals, health systems, doctors, and nurses need to immediately work on developing the culture that they want for the future … and recognizing that they have the power to at least participate in the creation of that.”
Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today as an enterprise and investigative writer in Jan. 2021. She has covered the healthcare industry in NYC, life sciences and the business of law, among other areas.