Patients say it's appropriate for health professionals to ask about guns

Many doctors and other health professionals are reluctant to talk to patients about gun safety, fearing patients may be offended or put off.

But many patients say they are comfortable with those conversations, according to a new study published in Health Affairs.

Using data from a 2018 survey of California residents, the study found that most people said health professionals talking about gun safety is at least sometimes appropriate when the conversations involved a patient who had a known risk factor for firearm-related harm.

The study authors noted, however, that their findings might not be generalized to other states since California has low rates of gun ownership, low rates of firearm suicide and more comprehensive firearm regulations than other states.

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In each of five selected scenarios, more than 80% of Californians said it was at least sometimes appropriate for health professionals to talk with patients who have guns in their homes about gun safety. So when did patients say it was most appropriate for doctors to bring up the topic?

  • When a patient had trouble with drugs or alcohol
  • When a patient had thoughts of suicide
  • When there were children or teens in the patient’s home
  • When a patient has dementia or a similar condition
  • When a patient lives with someone who has dementia or a similar condition

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“Health professionals may hesitate to discuss firearm safety with patients for fear of alienating or offending them, but our findings suggest that most patients are receptive—especially when the conversations happen in the context of risk reduction,” the study authors wrote.

It was true that, in general, fewer gun owners found those conversations appropriate compared with nonowners. While providers may be especially hesitant to discuss firearm safety with patients who own guns, the survey results suggest that they are also receptive to such conversations when there are risk factors involved, the author said.

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And given an imminent risk—when a patient has a firearm and thoughts of self-harm or harming others—all respondents said intervention by a healthcare professional is at least sometimes appropriate. Survey respondents said counseling the patient not to hurt anyone and informing the patient’s family were at least sometimes appropriate.