WASHINGTON — Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, all-time high stress levels have taken a significant toll on healthcare providers across the globe. This compounds already disproportionate suicide rates among doctors, which are 130% higher among female doctors than the general female population and 40% higher for males.
This week the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions moved to adopt a bipartisan bill inspired by the suicide of a New York physician in April 2020, the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act.
“She was a healer, and she wanted to both heal patients and also help out her colleagues who were dealing with the wave of illness and death in her hospital. When she came back, she found that she just couldn’t handle it,” Democratic Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine told his colleagues Tuesday.
The legislation is named in honor of Breen who, at 49 years old, was a top-performing emergency room physician in Manhattan. She had no history of mental illness but was brought to her limits after working tirelessly on the front lines at the onslaught of the pandemic in a city devastated by the virus early on.
She witnessed countless deaths and feared for the sake of her job if she sought help. After she contracted COVID-19 herself and quickly returned to work, Breen’s family intervened to have her brought home to Charlottesville, Va., where she later took her own life.
Kaine got to know the Breen family after their tragic loss. He’s now been working with them for about a year and helped turn their grief into the legislation the committee adopted this week.
Through his research on her, he learned she was no stranger to the prevalence of burnout among medical professionals, having authored a piece in the Journal of the American College Emergency Physicians about physician burnout. It was published just months before the start of the pandemic.
Despite this knowledge, the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation — created by Breen’s sister and brother-in-law, Jennifer and Corey Feist, in her honor — found insufficient protections and resources for physicians struggling with mental health, including Breen herself.
That’s partly why the measure’s broadly bipartisan.
“This legislation tackles the extreme stress for healthcare providers faced in seeing life and death situations each day by making sure healthcare providers have the mental health support they need,” Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said during the hearing. “Dr. Breen dedicated her life to helping others and is still doing so today, as her family works tirelessly to shine a light on the tragic problems that existed before and have been made worse by the pandemic.”
The legislation establishes grants for teaching evidence-based strategies on suicide prevention, burnout, substance abuse, employee education and mental health treatment. It would launch a national education and awareness campaign to encourage healthcare workers to seek help when needed. The measure also would establish comprehensive research on healthcare workers’ mental health more generally, as well as directly related to COVID-19.
Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy is one of the only doctors in the Senate. Sadly, he told the committee of the many doctors he knew who died by suicide throughout his career.
“They make good money, they typically have great families and, yet nonetheless, the stress of their job makes them vulnerable. COVID has exacerbated this,” Cassidy said.
Doctors have been under immense pressure to perform and save others during the pandemic, Kaine explained, “sometimes even calling them heroes can be a challenge because we put them on a pedestal and may not realize the vulnerabilities and challenges they deal with.”
The bill received support from around 70 different healthcare-related organizations — including the ACEP, which Breen was a member of, the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association.
“A year and a half ago they were enthusiastic,” Sen. Patty Murray, of Washington state, said. “They had this new pandemic, and today they’re weary. They’re just weary. It’s been a long year and a half, and this bill will make a difference.”