Pamela Wible, M.D.: Talking more openly about physician suicide is the key to saving lives

doctor burnout
Ignoring the issue of physician suicides can exacerbate the problem, an expert argues. (Pixabay)

Physician suicide is a public health problem, and ignoring the issue only makes it more likely to continue, an expert warns. 

Pamela Wible, M.D., an Oregon-based family physician, has gathered the stories of more than 750 physicians who committed suicide to take a deeper look at the trend, and in a column for the Chicago Tribune she writes that solving the problem requires acknowledging that it is widespread and that being a doctor is often emotionally taxing. 

"After collecting so many stories over the past five years, I believe that ignoring doctor suicides just leads to more doctor suicides," Wible writes. "Suicide is preventable, but we have to stop with the secrecy." 

Each year, an estimated 400 physicians die by suicide. An email from the wife of a physician who committed suicide went viral last year, shedding light on the often-silent struggle of doctors with depression or mental health issues. 

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A number of groups, including the American Medical Association, have created programs to shed light on the issue and foster discussion on suicide. Healthcare leaders can support physicians and other clinicians by offering education on the risks of compassion fatigue, burnout and stress. And they should encourage team members to speak up about their concerns and to have open conversations with their colleagues. 

Health systems such as Dignity Health have also found success in promoting an internal "culture of resilience" to ease the emotional and physical toll that healthcare can have on clinicians. 

Despite these steps, Wible says that some in the healthcare industry are uncomfortable with having frank discussions on the risk of suicide among physicians, and that she was even disinvited from speaking at an AMA event on suicide because of that discomfort. The discomfort can lead some to blame physicians for their own burnout, which can make them even more desperate.