Hospitals Considering Lighter Work Weeks, Other Options To Combat High Doctor Suicide Rates

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Evie Fordham Politics and Health Care Reporter
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  • The physician suicide rate is double that of the general population and even higher than the military veteran suicide rate.
  • Many factors, including long shifts, lack of interaction with other doctors and stresses like malpractice suits can adversely affect physicians’ mental health.
  • Doctors are afraid to admit mental health problems for fear of losing their licenses.

Physician health advocates are lobbying for lighter work weeks and other options to combat the high U.S. physician suicide rate, which is approximately double the general population’s.

“The fact that physicians are surrounded by helpers in the health system, yet fail to access help when needed, suggests a tremendous culture of silence within the profession with regards to physicians who are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse and issues related to stress and burnout,” Dr. Chris Bundy of the Washington Physicians Health Program told The Daily Caller News Foundation via telephone.

The physician suicide rate is 28 to 40 per 100,000 individuals per year compared to approximately 12 per 100,000 individuals per year in the general population, according to data presented at the American Psychiatric Association’s 2018 annual meeting. Approximately 300 to 400 doctors die by suicide each year, according to Medscape.

More than half of U.S. physicians have symptoms of burnout, which “manifests as emotional exhaustion, loss of meaning in work, and feelings of ineffectiveness,” according to a 2014 Mayo Clinic survey. Burnout can harm physicians’ mental health and even make them feel like taking their own lives is the answer.

Many doctors also fear their reputations and even licensure are at risk if they seek help from a psychiatrist.

Doctors “know exactly how to end their own lives and they often have easy access to the means,” reported Kaiser Health News. Those factors help explain why the physician suicide rate is the highest of any profession, including in the military.

Physicians associations are advocating for methods like hiring scribes to save doctors’ time and stress when dealing with electronic records. These options can raise costs for hospitals and other organizations that employ medical professionals but can improve doctors’ well-being and patients’ satisfaction.

“If you’re in the human services, you do a better job delivering human services if you’re doing well as a human yourself,” Bundy told TheDCNF.

Factors like increased pressure on physicians and lack of contact with other physicians is contributing to burnout and other symptoms, Bundy told TheDCNF.

“Health care is a rapidly changing and dynamic environment, and it’s been hard for organizations to keep up,” he said. “A lot of the changes have fallen squarely on the shoulders of physicians on the front lines of patient care, and now we need to redesign those systems so that the workload can be more equitably distributed.”

He highlighted team-based care, a growing trend in which at least two medical professionals are responsible for a patient, as a possible solution.

Lonely shifts and virtual communication have cut down on physician-to-physician face time, with serious consequences, Bundy told TheDCNF.

“Doctors lounges have disappeared,” he said. “I came to [Washington Physicians Health Program] from the [Veterans Affairs] health system, so I bring to this work the power of shared experience that I have also seen in veterans. It is widely believed that veterans benefit in terms of mental health by being able to share their unique experiences with one another. I think the same applies to physicians.”

Bundy cited Mayo Clinic research that concluded that having physicians meet in “small groups for semistructured, private discussions in restaurants, coffee shops or reserved rooms results in measurably lower burnout and social isolation, and higher well-being and job satisfaction,” according to American Medical Association Wire.

Changes along the lines of Bundy’s suggestions have already begun to take hold in the medical community. A Kaiser Health News story published in Aug. 3 told the story of an unnamed doctor who worked for emergency care company TeamHealth. The doctor’s colleagues were shocked when she committed suicide without any warning signs that alerted them to her struggle.

Since then, TeamHealth has created new protocols to combat physician burnout from multiple sides:

  • TeamHealth doctors now work an average of slightly more than 40 hours a week — some doctors, especially doctors just starting their careers, can work up to 80 hours a week
  • TeamHealth pairs doctors who are being sued with mentors who have been in similar situations
  • TeamHealth hired scribes to shadow physicians and handle electronic health record input

Bundy hopes the entire medical community comes to a better understanding of how its members can maintain better mental health. (RELATED: FDA Approves First Generic Drugs For Fast-Track Review To Combat Overpriced Drugs)

“We’re not just talking about physicians either,” Bundy told TheDCNF. “I worry about nurses and advanced practice clinicians. They’re on the front lines and need support. We need to be thinking about how we are caring for the people who provide the care for our patients.”

Follow Evie on Twitter @eviefordham.

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