Why Are Doctors Killing Themselves?
Physician suicide now poses a major threat to American health care
The first question everyone asks is, ”Why?” Why did Andrea Liu, a 26-year old radiology student kill herself just weeks before graduating from NYU Medical School? Why did Dr. Ben Shaffer, a successful orthopedic surgeon for 25 years, author of more than 50 publications and team physician or consultant to more than a dozen major sports organizations, drive his son to school one May morning in 2015 and then hang himself from a bookcase?
The nation loses 300 to 400 physicians each year, the equivalent of two large medical school classes, and more than a million patients lose their doctor. According to a new research study encompassing data from the past ten years, physicians are committing suicide at a rate that’s more than twice as high as the average population—higher even than for veterans.
With a critical shortage of physicians looming and advocates like Pamela Wible calling attention to the problem, the increasingly urgent question remains: Why are doctors killing themselves? And what can be done to help?
In response, researchers are ramping up their efforts to understand the causes of physician suicide; leading hospitals, medical schools and professional organizations are pioneering new programs and interventions; and regulators are reconsidering how they might revise the licensing/renewal process to support their efforts
The nation loses 300 to 400 physicians each year, the equivalent of two large medical school classes, and more than a million patients lose their doctor.
There is a long way to go before the epidemic of physician suicide is brought under control, but three areas of concern are now coming into focus:
• THE HEALTH CARE SYSTEM. “Many doctors cite inhumane working conditions in their suicide notes,” says Wible. Pressured to spend more time with EMR systems than with patients, physicians no longer feel in control of their time. Increasing demands and disappearing rewards leave many feeling trapped and desperate.
• THE CULTURE OF MEDICINE: Like doctors, first responders make life and death decisions under trying circumstances and routinely cope with the reality of death and dying. Unlike doctors, they are supported by their colleagues, supervisors and professional organizations. Physicians are expected to ignore their own pain and penalized for even seeking help. They end up feeling trapped and desperate.
• THE INDIVIDUALS WHO GO INTO MEDICINE tend to be intensely focused, driven to succeed and unforgiving of their own, and often other’s, imperfections. They end up spending more time at work than at home, thinking more about their patients than themselves and defining their self-worth solely in terms of their profession. When that’s threatened, they feel trapped and desperate.
These articles that follow explore what we know and don’t know about each of these issues, and consider some of the promising approaches now being developed to deal with them. Virtually everyone believes radical changes are needed in the practice and culture of medicine, but no one expects the transformation to hap-pen quickly. In the meantime, physicians can help protect themselves by learning how to honestly assess their own situation and reduce their “suicide potential,” a process we at PBI are eager to help with. Please read “Putting It All Together.”
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