Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation Co-Founders Share Importance of Reducing Burnout Among Healthcare Professionals

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already existing issue within healthcare systems – employee burnout and the stigmas around seeking mental healthcare. Healthcare providers face demanding work hours, physical exhaustion and emotional stress while being expected to provide quality care each day. Many providers suffer in silence while bearing fears of professional stigma and the required discloser of mental health assistance to licensing boards and healthcare institutions.

The co-founders of the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, Jennifer Breen Feist, JD, and J. Corey Feist, JD, MBA, spoke to these challenges at the virtual 2020 Luminaries in Healthcare Leadership event. This Luminaries was dedicated in memory of the late Dr. Lorna Breen, a beloved member of the Executive MBA/MS in Healthcare Leadership community. As the emergency department director at the NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, Dr. Breen was on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19. She is remembered as a champion for patients and a dear friend to many.

In conversation with Rainu Kaushal, MD, MPH, senior associate dean for clinical research and chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine, Jennifer and Corey (Dr. Breen’s sister and brother-in-law), shared the mission of the Foundation and how the Cornell community and healthcare professionals everywhere can help.

To reduce the number of healthcare professionals who face burnout and to safeguard their well-being and job satisfaction, the Foundation envisions a world where seeking mental health services is universally viewed as a sign of strength. Two main bodies of work to accomplish this include building awareness of these issues to reduce the stigma, as well as funding research and programs that will reduce healthcare professional burnout and improve provider well-being.

Like many others, Dr. Breen feared that her decades of dedication to the field and the sacrifices made along the way would be diminished by seeking mental healthcare, ultimately destroying her beloved career.

“We’ve learned that Lorna’s concerns about her career were actually very well founded. Anxiety and burnout are through the roof. Before the pandemic, more than 400 physicians died by suicide every year,” Jennifer said. “When this happened, my sister was the least suicidal person I’ve known in my entire life. People need to know it’s like forest fire, it happens really fast.” 

Corey added to that sentiment, saying, “We’re in a really grim spot right now. The stories and the anecdotes, the struggles that our healthcare workforce is going through right now. They didn’t start from a position of being particularly well-nourished and ready for this marathon. What we’ve asked them to do on depleted resources is run a marathon without a clear end point.” 

Jennifer and Corey see just starting these conversations as the beginning of eroding the stigma around mental healthcare and changing the culture and dynamic. And while the Foundation is named after Dr. Breen, it is not for just one individual. The co-founders are passionate about using Lorna’s story to help change the narrative for those still working in the field.

While stigmas have always existed around mental healthcare, Jennifer and Corey believe the issue is magnified in medical school, only becoming more problematic from there.

Weill Cornell Medicine is dedicated to changing the dynamic around mental healthcare. In 2019, Augustine M.K. Choi, MD, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine, launched the first-ever National Conference on Medical Student Mental Health and Well-Being. The event was designed to address the increasing rates of psychological distress among medical students nationwide, spotlighting the findings of leading mental health researchers, clinicians and educators while giving a needed platform for students and stakeholders to de-stigmatize the conversation around mental health. Another initiative, Well at Weill, supports medical and graduate student wellness with a focus on promoting self-care and resilience, along with expanded counseling and mental health services for students. 

Both Cornell and the Foundation understand that starting these initiatives and conversations is an accomplishment, but more work still needs to be done.

One current Foundation action item is the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, legislation that aims to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout, and mental and behavioral health conditions among healthcare professionals. This bill promotes mental health and behavioral health while supporting suicide and burnout prevention training in health professional training programs and increasing awareness and education about suicide and mental health concerns among healthcare professionals.

The pair also highlighted that each healthcare leader can have a huge impact on their own organization and the wellbeing of their workforce.

“Change has to come from the top down and the bottom up. What every single person on this call can do is change one single behavior somewhere,” Jennifer said. “Ask a coworker how they’re doing, pay attention to someone who seems like they’re struggling, go on our website. Do something. Do anything. If enough of us do something, there will be a change.”

With an EMBA of his own, Corey knows the energy needed to complete such a program, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Because I’ve been in your shoes as MBA students, take care of yourselves. Take care of yourselves first, and then help someone else.”

To learn more about the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, visit drlornabreen.org.

About Luminaries in Healthcare Leadership

Luminaries in Healthcare Leadership series is sponsored by the Executive MBA/MS in Healthcare Leadership program at Cornell University. A collaboration between the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management and the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, this dual-degree program helps healthcare leaders develop and strengthen their business skills and management capabilities while deepening their understanding of key drivers in the industry.

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