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March 22, 2022

Biden signs law to support health care workers' mental health

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    President Joe Biden on Friday signed the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act into law, providing new funding and educational programs to support health care workers' wellbeing and mental health.

    Our take: Three strategies to build baseline emotional support

    The pandemic's toll on health care workers

    Throughout the pandemic, many health care workers have reported both their mental and physical health worsening, as well as feelings of overwork and burnout.

    For example, a recent poll of 1,005 health care workers from Axios and Morning Consult found that 48% of health care workers said their mental health worsened during the pandemic, while 34% said the same about their physical health. In addition, more than half said that their stress level and feelings of anxiety worsened, while 42% said their feelings of depression worsened.

    Many health care workers also reported their diet, sleep, exercise routines, and empathy towards patients were negatively affected during the pandemic.

    In particular, health care workers who cared for Covid-19 patients were more likely to report that the pandemic worsened their health and different aspects of their lives. Of the respondents, 54% of health care workers who cared for Covid-19 patients said their mental health worsened during the pandemic compared with 42% of those who did not care for Covid-19 patients.

    "I have never before in my life seen more physicians feel like they're almost on a sinking ship," said Yomna Nassef, an ED physician and a spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians. "We're universally feeling the burnout and feeling the pain right now."

    New law aims to protect health care workers' mental health

    President Joe Biden on Friday signed the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act into law after it was passed in the Senate last month and the House in December 2021. The law is named for Lorna Breen, an emergency medicine physician at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital who died by suicide in 2020 after working tirelessly to treat Covid-19 patients.

    According to the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes' Foundation, which was created in Breen's honor after her death, Breen did not seek out mental health support despite the stress and burnout she was experiencing because she feared doing so would negatively impact her medical career and cause her colleagues to ostracize her.

    "Health care professionals often forgo mental health treatment due to the significant stigma in both our society and the medical community, as well as due to the fear of professional repercussions," said Angela Mills, chair of emergency medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. "This law will provide much needed funding to help break down the stigma of mental health care, providing education and training to prevent suicide, address other behavioral health issues, and improve well-being."

    The new law, which intends to provide mental health support and education for health care workers, will:

    • Establish grants to train health care workers on how to reduce and prevent burnout, suicide, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions
    • Provide funding for employee education, peer support programs, and behavioral health treatment
    • Create a national education and awareness campaign led by HHS to encourage health care workers to seek support and treatment

    Overall, the law will provide up to $135 million in funding over three years, Newsweek reports.

    Industry groups, including the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA) and the American Hospital Association, praised the new law. ENA president Jennifer Schmitz said the law was "a major legislative for ENA and a major milestone for all healthcare workers, particularly emergency nurses who have endured so much over the last two years."

    "As importantly, this bill's signing signals to everyone that it is OK to speak up, it is OK to seek help, it is OK to prioritize your self-care instead of suffering in silence," Schmitz added. "Lives will be saved because of the help this new law provides to healthcare workers." (AHA News, 3/18; Davis, HealthLeaders Media, 3/21; McKnight, Newsweek, 3/18)

    Three strategies to build baseline emotional support

    Breaking down health care's "I'm fine" culture

    workforce emotional supportIn the wake of Covid-19, health care organizations must commit to providing targeted baseline emotional support for the three types of emotionally charged scenarios that health care employees are likely to encounter in their careers: trauma and grief, moral distress, and compassion fatigue.

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