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October 16, 2017

Why 40 percent of doctors fear seeking mental health care

Daily Briefing

    Nearly 40 percent of doctors in the United States hesitate to seek out mental health care out of concern it may negatively affect their licensing applications, according to a study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Ronnie Cohen writes for Reuters.

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    Study details

    For the study, researchers in 2016 assessed initial medical licensure applications from the medical licensing boards of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as renewal applications from 48 state licensing boards. The researchers noted that while the Federation of State Medical Boards recommends that state licensing boards not ask applicants about their mental health history, each state has its own process for licensing physicians.

    The researchers also looked at the answers of 5,829 doctors who participated in a survey between August 28, 2014, and October 6, 2014, about their attitudes toward seeking out mental health care.

    Key findings

    The researchers found that of the 48 state licensing boards for which they assessed initial and renewal application forms, 32 asked doctors about their mental health history.

    Of the physicians surveyed, 2,325—about 40 percent—said they would be reluctant to seek mental health treatment because of the potential consequences of answering questions regarding their mental health on their licensing applications. Further, the study found that doctors were at least 20 percent more likely to express reluctance about seeking out mental health treatment in states that questioned doctors about their mental health history going back more than a year, when compared with doctors in states that only asked about their current mental health.


    Liselotte Dyrbye, the lead author on the study and a professor of medicine and medical education at the Mayo Clinic, said the findings raised concerns. "The medical license application questions are getting in the way of very treatable mental health disorders and probably contributing to the high rates of suicide among physicians," she said. According to the study, prior research has shown that some state medical boards may sanction a doctor simply for having been diagnosed with a mental health issue.

    Dyrbye added that the American Psychiatric Association has found no evidence supporting the idea that a doctor who has been treated for a mental illness is more likely to harm a patient than a doctor who has not been treated for a mental illness. "We want to lift the barriers to care for mental health conditions before physicians medicate themselves," she said. "We need to get people help earlier in the process. Our goal is to improve the work lives of physicians so they can deliver excellent, compassionate care to their patients." 

    According to Reuters, both Dyrbye and Katherine Gold, a professor at the University of Michigan who was not involved with the study, said state licensing boards should limit their questions about a doctor's mental health on licensure applications to just questions about potential impairments  (Cohen, Reuters, 10/10; Dyrbye et al., Mayo Clinic Proceedings, October 2017).

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