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Surgeons Struggle with Suicidal Thoughts

A new study finds that depression, burnout, and the perception of having made a medical error put surgeons at increased risk for suicidal ideation.

A staggering one in 16 US surgeons struggle with thoughts of suicide, with depression and burnout cited as the key factors, according to a report published in the January issue of the Archives of Surgery.

The high rate of suicidal thoughts among surgeons in particular (6.3% compared with 3.3% for the general population) was "striking," wrote lead author Tait Shanafelt, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, and colleagues.

Despite the fact that surgeons are highly educated, nearly all have jobs and most are married—factors known to reduce risk of suicide in the general population—depression, burnout, and the perception of having made a recent major medical error put surgeons at increased risk for suicidal ideation, the study of 7,905 physicians suggested.

To make matters worse, only about one in four of those who reported thinking about suicide sought psychiatric or psychological counseling, according to the survey, which was conducted by the American College of Surgeons.

Findings from the study are as follows:

  • Of 7905 participating surgeons, 501 (6.3%) reported suicidal ideation during the previous 12 months.
  • Among individuals 45 years and older, suicidal ideation was 1.5 to three times more common among surgeons than the general population.
  • Only 130 surgeons (26.0%) with recent suicidal ideation had sought psychiatric or psychologic help, while 301 (60.1%) were reluctant to seek help due to concern that it could affect their medical license.
  • Recent SI had a large, statistically significant adverse relationship with all three domains of burnout—emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and low personal accomplishment—and symptoms of depression.

"Surgeons are taught that the patient is their responsibility, period. So absolutely, if something goes wrong, the surgeons I know take it very personally," said Robert Lehmberg, MD, in an Associated Press article. Lehmberg, who was not involved in the study, now works in palliative care.

Results published previously from the same survey showed almost 9% of participating surgeons said they'd made a recent major medical error, notes the AP. Overall, surgeons surveyed worked 60 hours per week on average; 40% felt burned out; and 30% had symptoms of depression. Most said their work left little time for personal and family life.

Source: FiercePracticeManagement