Dr. Heather Brislen Wins Neubauer Award for Advocacy Efforts

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Dr. Brislen's advocacy work at the national and state levels has made exceptional contributions to advance ACP's public policy agenda

Sept. 11, 2020 (ACP) – Albuquerque, New Mexico-based internist Dr. Heather Brislen gets things done.

Brislen, also the governor of the New Mexico Chapter of the American College of Physicians, has helped move many state and national advocacy and policy issues forward. She led a successful effort for New Mexico to revise its allopathic medical licensing application so that the board no longer asks stigmatizing questions about mental health diagnoses. And she spearheaded a resolution for ACP to include access to abortion as part of comprehensive health care for women. She's not close to being finished yet.

For her efforts, Brislen received the 2020 Richard Neubauer Advocate for Internal Medicine Award. Each year, the award recognizes an ACP member who has made exceptional contributions to advance ACP's public policy agenda. It is usually presented at ACP's annual Leadership Day on Capitol Hill, but this year, it will be awarded at a later date due to COVID-19.

Brislen first dipped her feet in the advocacy arena as a medical student when she became a student delegate in the American Medical Association House of Delegates. Her interest and dedication toward making life better for physicians and the patients they treat took off from there. “The really powerful thing about advocacy work is that it's a burnout antidote,” she said. “You are working on changing things, so you will feel better the next time you see a patient face to face.”

Making a Difference

Sometimes, Brislen finds issues to work toward improving, and other times, they find her. A few years ago, two physician suicides rocked the tight University of New Mexico community. One of these physicians had been vocal about their fear that seeking mental health treatment might negatively affect their license application.

Brislen knew this had to change so that more physicians would feel comfortable discussing their mental health history and seeking treatment.

“Medical boards' mission is to protect the public by screening applicants, but the wording regarding mental health was stigmatized and outdated. It hadn't evolved along with our understanding that mental health disorders should be regarded on par with other health issues,” she said.

Brislen worked with local specialty societies to develop new language so that the board no longer asked such stigmatizing questions about mental health diagnoses. “We got buy-in from so many physician groups, and now we have language that matches the highest standards nationally,” she said. “This sends a powerful message about valuing all aspects of physician health and will hopefully encourage more physicians to seek mental health treatment.”

Finding Common Ground

At the national level, Brislen took on access to reproductive health care and abortion specifically, which can be a sensitive topic – but finding common ground helped her gain support and change policy to protect doctors and patients.

“As physicians, our primary goal is always to help patients prevent unwanted pregnancies, but we also have to acknowledge that women seeking abortion care are still our patients. ACP had women's health policy that didn't have the word abortion in it,” she said. “In New Mexico, there is an old law on the books that, if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, would make abortion illegal and physicians could risk imprisonment. I am not trying to talk someone with reservations into performing or advocating for abortion, but throwing colleagues in jail for doing something in their scope of practice is another issue entirely.” And this is how she was able to move the resolution forward to become official ACP policy. “Recognizing that we always have a duty to support our patients' ability to access safe health care and preventing the criminalization of our colleagues' scope of practice are issues that most physicians can get behind,” Brislen said.

Doing Your Part

Brislen is also very active in her state chapter's efforts to advocate with the legislature in Santa Fe. She has attended several national Leadership Day events and often speaks to medical students and residents about becoming involved in advocacy work.

Advocacy starts with rolling up your sleeves and getting involved in any way and anywhere that you can, Brislen said. “This is the time to show you are a workhorse, not a show horse,” she said. “Join the committees and boards that keep ACP running, sign up for subcommittees and task forces and apply for appointed roles. Once you build relationships, you have political capital to spend when your issue rises to the surface.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended everything about life as we know it, and the ways in which physicians enact change is no exception. “It's one thing to pop into a legislator's office for a face-to-face meeting, but another to get people to show up on Zoom,” Brislen said. “All traditional tactics have gone out the window.”

But the pandemic has also greatly reinforced the need for advocacy efforts. “Poverty is about to get worse, and all of our social determinants will take a hit. The question is how will we rebuild and get care to our most vulnerable patients,” Brislen said. “Now is the time to circle the wagons and get your community together. It's time to double down.”

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