Nearly 400 physicians commit suicide each year—likely an underestimate, say experts—but the subject still remains taboo in the medical community and physicians' cries for help often fall on deaf ears, writes Pamela Wible for the Washington Post.
According to Wible, on average, a typical doctor has about 2,300 patients under his or her care, meaning about one million patients nationwide end up losing a physician to suicide each year.
More on physician distress
Wible writes that physician suicide is a "triple taboo," noting, "Americans fear death. And suicide. Your doctors committing suicide? Even worse." In addition, a 2012 Medscape report on the subject noted that physicians tend to have a higher suicide completion rate than the general public "perhaps in part because of their greater knowledge of better access to lethal means."
However, Wible notes, "nobody is accurately tracking data or really analyzing why doctors may be depressed enough to kill themselves."
Wible—who says she has contemplated suicide in the past—addresses several possible reasons why doctors often see suicide as the only way out. For example, she says physicians often feel "trapped in an assembly-line clinic," forced to see an excess number of patients daily.
In addition, she writes, physicians "see far too much pain," adding that asking for help is seen as a "weakness" and visiting a psychiatrist can be "professional suicide." She says that seeing a therapist could put doctors' licenses and hospital privileges at risk if they are thought to have mental health issues and that they might lose patients "if [their] emotional distress becomes known."
Wible cites a recent article by internist Daniela Drake that contends being a physician has become "the most miserable profession" given pressures from insurers, employers, and declining reimbursements. And when naysayers claim physicians often "cry wolf," they may point to physicians' income as a reason why doctors should be happy—but Wible says that "when a doctor is distressed, how is an income graph by specialty helpful?"
In order to help physicians, Wible says family, friends, and employers should "never ignore doctors' cries for help" and should "avoid blaming and shaming." Wible suggests developing innovative ways of addressing the problem, aside from trite responses like holding a conference on the issue or creating little-used best practices.
For instance, Wible notes the Lane County Medical Society established a 24/7 physician wellness program with free access to physiologists experiences in physician mental health care. Since April 2012, there have been 131 physician calls, and the organization believes it has helped prevent those doctors from doing harm to themselves. Candice Barr, CEO of the society, says it is imperative to "do something meaningful, anything, keep people talking about it," adding, "The worst thing you can do is nothing and go on to the next patient" (Wible, Washington Post, 7/14).