A Hero’s Legacy

Fighting Burnout Among Those Who Give Their Lives to Heal Others 

This past fall, ApolloMD campaigned to raise awareness and donations for Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, supporting its mission to reduce burnout in the health care industry and advocate for more accessible mental health services for health care professionals. Their mandate aligns directly with our own company-wide wellness initiatives and our corporate vision statement: “Healthy Clinicians. Healthy Patients. Healthy Communities.”

We believe that providing quality patient care and practicing good medicine is both facilitated and enhanced by the whole health of our clinicians and providers. Our strength comes from our collective compassion, as well as our expertise.*

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ARMAGEDDON

Dr. Lorna Breen served as medical director for the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, charging onto the front line of the pandemic during its treacherous premier wave in 2020. She described the scene to her family as “like Armageddon” with their facilities overwhelmed, staff unable to keep up, and patients dying. Dr. Breen contracted the virus, stayed home to recuperate for the minimum time frame, and headed right back to 12-hour shifts at the hospital, loath to leave at the end of a shift due to the desperate need for workers in the ED.

The pressure and lingering after-effects of the illness finally caught up to her, triggering a paralyzing depressive episode in a woman with no history of mental health issues. She reached out to her sister in Virginia, Jennifer Breen Feist, and through a network of friends, made her way down to UVA Health for treatment. Following an 11-day inpatient stay, Breen died by suicide a brief time after her discharge.

FIGHTING PHYSICIAN BURNOUT

Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation exists to address the overall wellness of health care workers, taking a firm stance to assure positive action progresses.

Founded by Jennifer Breen Feist and Corey Feist, the beloved sister and brother-in-law of the esteemed Dr. Breen, the Foundation fights physician burnout, champions mental health initiatives, and fosters well-being for the professionals who devote their lives to caring for others. The Foundation currently focuses its efforts on three main categories of awareness, advocacy, and education.

From the awareness angle, Dr. Breen’s story touched a raw nerve as it passed to millions of people through interviews, publications, podcasts, and social media. As the circumstances of Breen’s sudden, tragic death were relayed through these channels, the overwhelming responses began to show distinctive characteristics.

“We’re hearing from two different groups,” declares Corey Feist, “one is health care workers who see themselves, not only in her brief struggle but in her whole career leading up to that. The second group … is mental health professionals who hear the language [Dr. Breen] was using around stigma and loss of licensure, and who understand the significance of that for their patients.”

Related reading: Surviving the ED Night Shift

Feist mentions emails of gratitude coming into the Foundation from health care workers who feel validated by the story and from therapists and clinicians who were able to identify similar concerns for patients and guide them to safety.

“Awareness has been a huge piece for us,” he asserts, “in not only helping to reduce stigma and create a safe place for conversation, but even more so in allowing individuals or mental health professionals to respond and take care of themselves or others.”

THE LORNA BREEN ACT

Those responses greatly influence the Foundation’s ongoing advocacy, fueling the fight to end physician burnout and working toward legislation at both the state and federal level. The Lorna Breen Act recently passed through the United States House of Representatives as the first ever federal wellbeing initiative for the health care work force, signaling a national recognition that the time for widespread policy change is now.

Yet, there are significant hurdles as Feist points out, “We published an article in US News & World Report that identified six barriers to accessing mental health care for doctors and nurses … they get asked questions on forms (licensure, credentialing, privileging, insurance applications, etc.) about the status of their mental health going back to the beginning of time. Then, some hospital health plans require their insured to use their own system [even for psychiatric care]. Finally, if sued for malpractice in certain states, your mental health medical record [can be obtained] in the discovery process.”

The Foundation endeavors to spur further inquiry into these statutes, asking health care organizations to re-examine their policies, and encouraging them to publish for their work force a definitive handbook clarifying details. “If the facts are not favorable,” he asserts, “if your state laws or your institution have questions that go beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act, work to change it!”

Educating individuals on their options or obligations presents a particularly painful reminder for the family of Dr. Breen. “That one is really personal for us,” Feist discloses, “because she [Breen] thought she would lose her license to practice, and she was wrong … but the lore in medicine is so strong.”

#AllIn INITIATIVE 

That education commitment includes providing resources to learn more about every aspect of the issue and the #AllIn initiative pulls together a coalition of leading health care organizations to contribute to those resources.

“One of things I like about the #AllIn initiative,” Feist reflects, “is that we’re meeting organizations where they are —if they are more advanced, here’s a way to approach it but if they’re just getting started then do one thing. Take the first step. It’s really a way to get the industry to adopt these tools that we’re putting out there for free. Because we know that first step is going to lead to another … This is not unlike where health care was 10-15 years ago on quality initiatives.”

He also sees a correlation between the paradigm shift necessary for the health care industry to that which the military has addressed with similar crises.

“When I testified in front of Congress, I made that analogy,” Feist reveals. “I said that this is like sending the entire health care work force to war for 20+ months and not supporting them when they return. I got the look of recognition from them as they realized that IS what this is. We need to get that health care work force to a point of comfort where they don’t fear retribution for sharing their [vulnerable] moments.”

As the pandemic continues to expose the staffing vulnerabilities in the medical profession, the strategies around recruitment and retention also benefit from these tools. Feist hypothesizes, “If you’ve designed a health care workplace where doctors and nurses can thrive, where it’s easy to practice medicine, you’re going to keep that loyalty to you. Whereas, if you have a place where the culture is tough, it’s going to be a revolving door. We need to redesign this mousetrap to create a different experience where these professionals can do what they’ve been trained to do.”

The Foundation strives to be a catalyst for that cultural reform, fighting physician burnout and ensuring the legacy of Dr. Breen continues to heal others. ApolloMD is committed to supporting these efforts.

*For more information about these initiatives and legislation, and to explore the comprehensive library of resources, visit the website for Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation.

Related reading: How Physician Resilience Training Changed a Georgia Doctor’s Life and Career

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