By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
Dr. Richard Willner, a podiatrist and a man who has brought attention to the plight of at-risk physicians and made their survival his personal mission, recently received the Civic Leader of the Year Award for Jefferson Parish from the Alliance for Good Government.
In ceremonies at the Southport Club in Old Jefferson on August 8, Willner was presented with the award by Robert Marrero, the vice president of the Jefferson Parish chapter, and Alliance for Good Government chairman Ted Fandal for his work with Peer Review Justice, a non-profit organization Willner founded that serves burned-out physicians and those at increased risk for suicide.
Willner joined three other Civic Leader of the Year recipients from the adjoining parishes of Orleans, St. Bernard and St. Tammany.
“The suicide rate (of physicians) is 350-400 per year,” Willner told the CCJN in a phone interview. “The burnout rate is 50% of (these) people. There’s a reason behind this. These are not snowflakes. These are not people who are not smart and hard-working.”
Marrero confirmed Willner’s selection to the CCJN. “We’re not allowed to discuss what goes on in the decision-making process , but I can tell you he was nominated on account of his efforts to deal with the physician suicide issue,” Marrero said.
Through Peer Review Justice, Willner has instituted what he calls a “friendship line,” where overwrought or depressed physicians can call in and receive encouragement. For legal reasons he cannot call it a suicide prevention line.
“I don’t give therapy,” he explained. “I work to solve a problem and that kicks in the normal problem-solving abilities of people. It just lessens the burden enough to buckle down and try to solve more of them.”
He points out that physicians are notoriously bad patients. “Doctors do not ask for help,” he stressed. The friendship line gives them a forum where they can talk to someone who will listen free of judgment or scorn.
Dr. Willner said he bases his work in this area in part on the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”). In self-deprecating fashion, he said he also refused to believe he had received it ” until I heard that my name was engraved in the award.”
“This is an election year and every politician wannabe wants this award because it’s so prestigious,” he added.
For now the coveted award has a place on his desk at home, but he did bring it to his workplace one day to let others share in his good fortune.
Willner’s efforts in prevention of suicide among doctors has secured him a place at the upcoming American College of Surgeons conference in San Francisco at the end of October. He will be presenting a lecture to the estimated gathering of 35,000 surgeons on his efforts and the work of PeerReviewJustice.org.
Founded in 1967, the Alliance for Good Government is a volunteer organization that frequently evaluates candidates for public office and makes recommendations to the public on their worthiness.