After a significantly stressful year for physicians, ACP is advocating for passage of the Lorna Breen Bill and doubling down on efforts to improve physician wellness
April 2, 2021 (ACP) – New York City emergency room physician Dr. Lorna Breen's suicide in April 2020 sent shockwaves through the medical community and the nation as a whole.
Undone by the stress and helplessness she felt as a frontline health care worker during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, Breen left to spend time with her family in Charlottesville, Virginia. While there, Breen took her own life.
Unfortunately, Breen is not alone. About 300 to 400 physicians die by suicide each year, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians, and many doctors are not comfortable asking for help when they are struggling.
The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, which the American College of Physicians is championing, aims to reduce and prevent incidences of suicide, burnout and mental and behavioral health conditions among health care professionals. To make this a reality, the bill creates behavioral health and well-being training programs and a national campaign to encourage health care professionals to seek support and treatment.
“We need to make sure caregivers are getting the care that they need,” said ACP President Dr. Jacqueline W. Fincher. ACP recently sent letters to the House and Senate urging them to pass this bill, which was originally introduced last year and was reintroduced this year.
‘Straw That Broke the Camel's Back’
ACP is doubling down on other efforts to support physician wellness, as the stakes have never been higher.
Physician burnout, largely due to insurmountable administrative burdens, was a big issue before the pandemic, Fincher said. Living and working through a pandemic has added even more stress.
“Inpatient physicians are seeing serious illness, hospitalization and death in volumes that are incredible, and that has been extremely stressful and traumatic for some,” she said.
In the outpatient setting, by contrast, physicians faced different pandemic-related stressors. “We had to set up telehealth overnight, figure out how to continue to maintain our staff and access government programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, and document all of that in case of an audit,” Fincher said.
There has been a silver lining. “Internists felt more needed and appreciated than ever, and that's been a plus,” Fincher said. “COVID-19 was the straw that broke the camel's back for some.”
It's more than suicide, too. “Doctors are leaving their practices because they are so miserable,” Fincher said. “We need more primary care doctors, not less.”
Something has to give, she added. Health care professionals need to feel comfortable asking for help and owning their mental health diagnoses without feeling stigmatized. This is not always possible due to the way that medical boards currently query physicians about their mental health, Fincher said.
ACP created a wellness taskforce that morphed into a commission and has actively trained wellness champions at the local and state levels who work with other stakeholders to change this culture and remove the stigma around mental illness.
Members can access ACP's new I.M. Emotional Support Hub, which provides peer support through the Physician Support Line and confidential counseling through The Emotional PPE Project and The Therapy Aid Coalition.
Every member needs a “battle buddy,” Fincher said, “a colleague that we can connect with on a regular basis, as there is no question that isolation and loneliness increase risk for suicide.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available 24/7. Text 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) or Disaster Distress Hotline (1-800-985-5990).
ACP offers guidance and resources on well-being for internists on the “Physician Well-Being and Professional Fulfillment” page of its website.