Time to prioritize the mental health of our frontline health care heroes
For over a year now, newspaper headlines have all echoed a similar theme day in and day out: the coronavirus continues to devastate communities across the world. But now, as millions of people begin to receive the vaccine, the possibility of hope and the promise of a return to ‘normalcy’ are visible along the horizon. As our country turns a corner, let’s not forget about the millions of people who worked long hours, saved lives and sacrificed so much over the past year — our nation’s heroic health care workers.
We’ve all experienced stress, sorrow, and isolation since March of 2020. But no other workforce has been more exhausted or overworked than our nation’s frontline health care workers. Society is again calling on these heroes — now, to treat and heal sick patients and prevent healthy ones from contracting the virus by administering the COVID-19 vaccine. We owe them our recognition, appreciation, and protection.
Not until the death of our beloved Dr. Lorna Breen, a celebrated emergency medicine physician at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, did we fully understand how dangerous it is to be a doctor in this new era of pandemic.
In the early weeks of the coronavirus, Lorna treated confirmed COVID-19 patients, contracted the virus herself, and returned to an even more overwhelming, relentless number of sick patients. Like many frontline workers today, Lorna became so overworked. She was despondent. But what scared her even more? She was worried about losing her medical license or becoming ostracized by her colleagues because she was mentally suffering due to her work on the pandemic’s front lines. Sadly, she felt she had nowhere to go. Lorna died by suicide on April 26, 2020.
In our quest to find meaning in Lorna’s death, we turned to her peers across the country, from Bakersfield to Baltimore. For most, physician burnout, depression, and suicide were neither a part of their formal curriculum nor a subject in hallway discussions. It merely is an unspoken — and accepted — occupational hazard.
In fact, long before the pandemic’s strike, physicians had the highest death rate by suicide of any profession in the country, and as many as 45-55 percent of health care workers have suffered from burnout.
For now, the mental toll of COVID-19 is particularly evident among health care workers. Day in and day out, they face the additional burdens of working with infected patients in the absence of adequate personal protective equipment, the fear of exposing themselves and family members to the virus, the trauma of working in a high-stress environment, overwhelmed facilities, mounting illness and death of patients and colleagues, and additional barriers to care.
And it may well get worse.
Science shows us that with mental health issues like burnout, fatigue, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, when you remove the stimulus or stressor, the event’s experience becomes amplified. In other words: When the coronavirus crisis dissipates and life goes back to some semblance of ‘normal,’ the mental health of our nation’s health care workers will be most vulnerable.
Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon. This month, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced the bipartisan Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, legislation that aims to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health help and prevent burnout and suicide among health care professionals.
Just a few days later, key provisions of this bill were included in the American Rescue Plan, signed by President Biden on Friday, to train health care professionals on strategies to reduce burnout, reduce stigma associated with seeking mental health care, and provide support to the employers of frontline providers so they can better care for the mental health needs of their workforce. This is a huge step one; passing the rest of the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act is an important step two.
For far too long, the stoic culture of self-sufficiency has driven treatable health issues underground and prevented scores of professionals from accessing effective treatment that could protect both patient safety and the health and careers of the providers themselves. This legislation does just that.
The consequences of physician burnout and depression are drastic. They include personal misery, compassion fatigue, medical errors, and even early retirement which leads to costly turnover. Despite how divided this country seems right now, we can all agree on at least one thing — we must take care of our health care heroes.
We urge all policymakers to follow the science and put the results into practice. Pass the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act — and do what’s right for the health care workers who do right by us every day.
Jennifer Breen Feist is Dr. Breen’s sister and a co-founder of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation. Corey Feist is Dr. Breen’s brother-in-law, chief executive officer of the University of Virginia Physicians Group, and co-founder of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation. Rep. Susan Wild represents the 7th District in Pennsylvania and serves on the House Educator and Labor Committee.