Do physician health programs increase physician suicides?

How do we care for the people who care for us? As doctors, we’re immersed in pain and suffering — as a career. We cry when our patients die. We feel grief anxiety, depression — even suicidal — all occupational hazards of our profession.

A recent Medscape article on physician health programs suggests the people who are here to help us may actually be doing more harm than good. And they may even be increasing physician suicides.

Both doctors I dated during medical school died by suicide. Eight physicians killed themselves in my town alone. I’ve become a specialist in physician suicide. My cell phone has turned into a suicide hotline. And I have a stack of physician suicide notes that I keep at home.

Here’s one of them:

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Dear Some, My family, I love you. To others who have been good friends, I love you too. This is just the end of the line for my particular train. Earth wasn’t a great place for me. We’ll see what else is out there. Will miss you all. I’m sorry for what it’s worth. Love Greg.

On June 22, 2012. Dr. Greg Miday killed himself — 12 hours after being told not to follow his psychiatrist’s safety plan by the physician health program that controlled his medical license.  Sober for years, he relapsed just before his death. A brilliant clinician, never impaired at work, Greg drank to cope with anxiety.

Afterwards, two interns jumped to their deaths from New York hospitals the same week (within three days of each other, I believe). Greg’s mother, a psychiatrist, sent this letter to the editor of the New York Times:

An unacknowledged predicament for physicians who identify their struggle with substance abuse and/or depression is that they are often placed under the supervision of their state medical board’s physician health program. My son, Greg, was being monitored by such a program. He took his own life at age 29, one week before he was to enter an esteemed oncology fellowship. His final phone calls were to the physician health program notifying them of his use of alcohol while on vacation, a disclosure he had previously described as a ‘career killer.’ These programs, which often offer no psychiatric oversight, serve as both treating and policing agencies, a serious conflict of interest. Threatened loss of licensure deters vulnerable physicians from seeking help and may even trigger a suicidal crisis. Medical Boards have the duty to safeguard the public, but the assumption that mental illness equals medical incompetence is an archaic notion. Medical Boards must stop participating in the stigmatization of mental illness. We cannot afford to lose another physician to shame.

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Greg Miday and his mother, Karen Miday

The facts: Our medical schools, hospitals, and clinics actually cause or exacerbate mental health conditions in physicians, then they blame us and force us to release our confidential medical records. And in the end, they take our license ..

Maybe that’s why my friend, an excellent psychiatrist, drives 200 miles out of town, pays cash, and uses a fake name to get mental health care.

And another physician friend who was deemed “too slow” (seeing patients) by her residency director, was sent to a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with mild OCD. (Don’t we all have some OCD if we are thorough physicians?) Well, she was actually then sent to medical board who referred her to a physician health program that mandated an AA-style substance abuse program — which makes no sense at all since she does not do substances, She doesn’t drink or smoke.

So who the hell is protecting us from being misdiagnosed, mistreated, and abused?

There are many who prey upon physicians. So who cares for doctors?

And how in the world can we give patients the care we’ve never received?

Pamela Wible pioneered the community-designed ideal medical clinic and blogs at Ideal Medical Care. She is the author of Pet Goats and Pap Smears. Watch her TEDx talk, How to Get Naked with Your Doctor. She hosts the physician retreat, Live Your Dream, to help her colleagues heal from grief and reclaim their lives and careers.

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