Conference Coverage

State medical boards under fire in physician suicides


 

EXPERT ANALYSIS FROM PSYCH CONGRESS 2019

– Physician suicide is “a public health crisis because of the sheer volume of people who are dying,” and many medical authorities are contributing to stigma through “invasive” questionnaires, a prevention advocate said at the annual Psych Congress.

Pamela Wible, MD, is a family physician who practices in Eugene, Ore.

Dr. Pamela Wible

“Physicians fear sharing their mental health struggles with the state medical health board,” said Pamela Wible, MD, a family physician who practices in Eugene, Ore., at the meeting. They “pretend, deny, and lie,” she said, and sometimes they seek care and medication hours away in order to avoid detection.

One solution, she said, is to highlight state medical boards that do it right and state medical boards that do it wrong, including the “very worst,” which is that of Alaska.

Dr. Wible, who speaks of suffering from suicidal feelings herself as physician in 2004, is a leading advocate for suicide prevention in the medical profession.

She told colleagues at the Psych Congress that anesthesiologists face the highest risk of suicide, followed by surgeons, ob.gyns., and psychiatrists.

“They end their lives not because they want to die but because they want to stop the pain and they can’t find any other way,” she said. “They have a great work ethic until the end: They’re smiling, doing complex surgeries, and cracking jokes to the surgical team, then they shoot themselves in the closet.”

Colleagues are often shocked, she said: “ ‘Wait a minute. He was just joking with me yesterday. What do you mean he hung himself in his office?’ ‘She just had a newborn baby and she was so happy!’ If you see the smile, you don’t see the pain.”

In 2018, she wrote a Washington Post commentary titled “What I’ve learned from my tally of 757 doctor suicides” that was based on her registry of physician suicides. In the United States, she wrote, 1 million patients lose a physician to suicide each year. Factors contributing to suicides include patient deaths, malpractice suits, “academic distress,” and overwork. “Doctors who need help don’t seek it because they fear mental health care won’t remain confidential,” she wrote. “So they drive out of town, pay cash, and use fake names to hide from state medical boards, hospitals, and insurance plans out of fear that they will lose state licensure, hospital privileges, and health plan participation.”

Dr. Wible oversaw a 2019 research project that analyzed state medical board applications. The goal was to grade the state boards by how intrusively their application questions grill applicants about their mental health history. “Physicians fear sharing their mental health struggles with the state medical health board and with each other,” she said. Some lie, and others – “the really honest physicians” – are so dedicated to telling the truth that “they’ll withhold getting care because they want to correctly check the ‘no’ box.”

Seven states – Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Mississippi, Rhode Island, and Washington –received “F” grades for “highly invasive mental health questions unlinked to current impairment that contain confusing, punitive, or adversarial language.”

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Alaska, Dr. Wible said, asks multiple 25 yes-or-no questions about mental health. One question lists 14 conditions, almost all related to mental health – including depression, “any organic mental disorder,” and “any condition requiring chronic medical or behavioral treatment” – and asks, “Have you ever been diagnosed with, treated for, or do you currently have” any of them. This is “the most invasive mental health question we found on any application,” Dr. Wible wrote on her website.

States also hurt applicants by asking peers of applicants about their mental health, she said. “I’m not against getting peer references, but can we stop getting into everyone’s business with their psych history? What we really want to know is: ‘Are you are safe with patients today?’ ”

Dr. Wible also criticizes state medical boards for asking about mental health impairment over the last 5 years: They don’t get higher than a “C.”

The 13 states with “A” grades either don’t ask about mental health or simply ask about general impairment: Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming.

Massachusetts, for example, asks, “Do you have a medical or physical condition that currently impairs your ability to practice medicine?”

“That is a question anyone can understand,” Dr. Wible said. “I think that’s good wording.”

Going forward, she said, “we’ve got to remove these mental health questions. If we could do this, our profession would be so much better, and we’d lose so many fewer people.”

And, she added, “what we really need to do is share our stories. It’s therapeutic for you and your colleagues, it creates collegial trust and bonding, and it destigmatizes physician mental health.”

Dr. Wible reported no relevant disclosures.

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