Your surgeon may be contemplating suicide

I wrote last year in USA Today about the impact of physician burnout.  Not only do doctors suffer, but so do their patients.

Burnout starts early in residency, with entering interns having a depression rate of 4%, similar to the general public.  But after the first year of residency, that number balloons to 25%.

Now, another study adds fuel to this disturbing trend.

A paper published in the Archives of General Surgery looks at the prevalence of physician burnout in surgeons:

In a national survey, one in 16 surgeons reported contemplating suicide, researchers reported.

An increased risk of suicidal ideation was linked to three factors: depression, burnout, and the perception of having made a recent major medical error …

… But only about one in four of those who reported thinking about taking their own lives sought psychiatric or psychologic help.

The rate of suicidal ideation in surgeons, at 6.3%, was almost double of that in the general population (3.3%).

Physician burnout is a phenomenon that’s often ignored. The practice environment is deteriorating, with increasing time pressures and worsening bureaucratic burdens. Little of this is addressed in the national health conversation, or in the recently passed health reform law.

As more doctors burnout and quit medicine, patients will suffer.  It’s certainly not an ideal situation as more than 30+ million newly-insured patients will be looking for physicians to care for them in the coming years.

And for the physicians who stay, burnout will impact the care they give to patients — including a decrease in empathy and an increase in medical errors.

Burnt out doctors feel they have little recourse. In the Archives study,

  • Only 130 surgeons — 26% of those who had recent suicidal thoughts — had sought psychiatric or psychologic help.
  • Among the 501 doctors who reported suicidal thoughts, 301 said they were reluctant to seek help because of worry that it could affect their medical license.

That’s unacceptable. Hospitals need to better recognize the signs of burnout and increase the support they give to depressed physicians.

Another consideration would be to better monitor work hours to ensure proper work-lifestyle balance. Today, doctors in training are strictly regulated to ensure they work no longer than 80 hours a week. Once they graduate and practice in the real world, that oversight ceases. There is nothing to prevent doctors from working days at time, which can happen at an understaffed, rural hospital, for instance.

The same zeal that goes into limiting residents’ work hours should be applied to doctors in the real world, to ensure their workload doesn’t drive them to burnout and potential suicide.

 is an internal medicine physician and on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.  He is founder and editor of, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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