'Striking' number of surgeons consider suicide

A staggering one in 16 surgeons has contemplated suicide, according to a national survey commissioned by the American College of Surgeons and reported in the January issue of Archives of Surgery.

While suicide is a disproportionate cause of death for physicians to begin with, the high rate of suicidal thoughts among surgeons in particular (6.3 percent compared with 3.3 percent for the population as a whole) was "striking," wrote lead author Tait Shanafelt, MD, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and colleagues.

Despite the fact that surgeons are highly educated, nearly all have jobs and most are married--factors known to reduce risk of suicide in the general population--depression, burnout and the perception of having made a recent major medical error put surgeons at increased risk for suicidal ideation, the study of nearly 8,000 physicians suggested.

To make matters worse, only about one in four of those who reported thinking about suicide sought psychiatric or psychologic help, according to the study. 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.

"Surgeons are taught that the patient is their responsibility, period. So absolutely, if something goes wrong, the surgeons I know take it very personally," said Arkansas Dr. Robert Lehmberg, who spoke with the Associated Press about his experience of needing to be prodded by friends and family to seek treatment for his depression and suicidal thoughts. Lehmberg, who was not involved in the study, now works in palliative care.

Results published previously from the same survey showed almost 9 percent of participating surgeons said they'd made a recent major medical error, notes the AP. Overall, surgeons surveyed worked 60 hours per week on average; 40 percent felt burned out; and 30 percent had symptoms of depression. Most said their work left little time for personal and family life.

To learn more:
- read the article in MedPage Today
- see the Associated Press article in the Washington Post
- check out the study abstract in the Archives of Surgery