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Why it’s so hard to prevent physician suicide


 

Kip Wenger, DO, an emergency physician and systems medical director of Team Health, Knoxville, Tenn., was asked to see a patient in the emergency department. He was shocked when he realized who the patient was – a 33-year-old female physician friend and colleague.

She was bleeding from multiple self-inflicted injuries and ultimately died. “I was devastated and couldn’t wrap my head around what had just happened,” Dr. Wenger told this news organization.

It’s important for physicians to be aware of warning signs in their colleagues, such as showing up late, being irritable and short-tempered with staff, missing shifts, making mistakes, or receiving an increasing number of patient complaints, Dr. Wenger says.

Dr. Wenger had had dinner with her several weeks earlier and saw some subtle changes. He had known her as a “positive, upbeat person,” but her demeanor was different during dinner.

“There were no typical telltale signs – she was talking about her plans for the future, including buying a new bicycle – but she wasn’t herself and seemed to become tearful when I hugged her at the end of the evening,” he said. He later heard from another colleague that she had shared feeling “hopeless.”

The scope of the problem

According to the American Society for Suicide Prevention, roughly 300-400 physicians die by suicide annually. Although one study suggests a lower number, official reports likely underestimate suicides, study author Katherine Gold, MD, MSW, associate professor of family medicine, obstetrics, and gynecology, Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, said in an interview.

Peter Yellowlees, MD, MBBS, professor of psychiatry, University of California, Davis, concurs, suggesting that some single-car accidents involving physicians might be suicides. Perry Lin, MD, assistant clinical professor, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ohio University, Athens, and national co-chair of the Physician Suicide Awareness Committee of the American Association of Suicidology, says that some death certificates state that the deceased died of “accidental causes” because the physician who completes the certificate, possibly a colleague, is reluctant to list the actual cause of death to protect his colleague’s memory or the family’s feelings.

In general, and among physicians, White men older than 65 “represent the largest percentage of people who die from suicide nationwide,” says Dr. Lin.

But younger people are also susceptible, Dr. Lin adds. One of the most vulnerable periods for potential suicide is during the first few months of residency. This dovetails with the findings of Medscape’s 2022 report Suicide: A Tragedy of the Profession. In that report, a difference was found between frequency of suicidal thoughts in younger physicians, compared with older physicians (14% in those < 35 years vs. 8% for those ≥ 45 years).

Hurdles to preventing physician suicide

“The best thing that can happen in our profession is upstream intervention – if people seek help before they get to the point of suicidality, recognizing they’re under stress and duress and that they might be going down a bad pathway,” says Dr. Lin. But research suggests that many physicians don’t do so.

Gary Price, MD, attending surgeon and clinical assistant professor of surgery, Yale–New Haven Hospital, Connecticut, and president of the Physicians Foundation, says his organization has identified barriers that prevent physicians from seeking help.

The major concern is that, in many states, licensing applications still ask whether the physician has been in treatment for a mental health condition. Physicians feel they may put their licensure at risk if they admit to receiving help for mental issues. These concerns were expressed by respondents in Medscape’s above mentioned 2022 report, many of whom didn’t seek treatment for depression, burnout, or suicidal thoughts lest it affect their professional standing when renewing their license or seeking credentialing.

Although organizations and societies are advocating against these questions, a recent study found that almost 70% of U.S. states and territories continue to ask physicians about their mental health, and 28% ask for diagnoses (beyond current impairments) – a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“Mental health illness is different from mental health impairment,” Ryan Mire, MD, a Nashville, Tenn.–based internist, said in an interview. “As physicians, we’re comfortable with licensing boards asking whether the physician has any condition that might impair their care for patients, but not about a history of mental illness.”

The second barrier, says Dr. Price, is that hospital credentialing committees sometimes ask similar questions, as do commercial and malpractice insurers.

Another roadblock is that in some states, undergoing treatment for a mental health problem could be subject to discovery by a plaintiff’s attorney in a malpractice case, even if the physician’s mental health history had no effect on patient care. But that’s uncommon, says Daniel Shapiro, PhD, author of “Delivering Doctor Amelia,” a book about his treatment of a suicidal physician who underwent a malpractice lawsuit. “I’ve never seen that happen.”

A final barrier is that many employers require employees to receive treatment within their own institution or health system. “Physicians may be reluctant to get help where they work, with colleagues and friends knowing about their illness or being involved with their care,” says Dr. Price.

In 2022, the American College of Physicians (ACP) issued a toolkit to help members encourage licensing and credentialing boards to remove questions about mental health on applications and include language that supports receiving treatment, Dr. Mire says.

Layers of vulnerability

There are few data regarding relative risk among particular races or ethnicities, “but we know racism is a social stressor,” says Dr. Mire. “Obviously, people from historically disadvantaged populations tend to have societal stressors like discrimination and racism that add an extra layer of burden.”

Intersectionality – having multiple intersecting risk factors – may confer even higher risk. “For example, if you’re a female physician from a historically marginalized race and a resident dealing with the ‘hidden curriculum’ of trying to be resilient, you have multiple layers of vulnerability.”

There are also limited data regarding which specialties or work environments are associated with highest risk. “Obviously, challenges exist in every segment of medicine and at different ages, stages, and work environments, and they intersect with each individual physician’s personal risk factors,” says Dr. Mire, president of the ACP and assistant clinical professor of clinical medical education, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Memphis.

Pamela Wible, MD, is an Oregon-based retired physician who herself went through a suicidal period about 11 years into her career that motivated her to embrace a new vision of clinical practice and change her practice model. After a series of physician suicides in her area, she began to speak and write openly about physician suicide, and since her retirement from clinical practice, she makes herself available on a full-time basis to distressed physicians. “When I address a conference of a particular medical specialty or a group in a particular geographical region, I focus on the specific vulnerabilities in that specialty or region,” she says.

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