Feature

Are doctors really at highest risk for suicide?


 

In October 2012, Pamela Wible, MD, attended a memorial service in her town for a physician who had died by suicide. Sitting in the third row, she began to count all the colleagues she had lost to suicide, and the result shocked her: 3 in her small town alone, 10 if she expanded her scope to all the doctors she’d ever known.

And so she set out on a mission to document as many physician suicides as she could, in an attempt to understand why her fellow doctors were taking their lives. “I viewed this as a personal quest,” she said in an interview. “I wanted to find out why my friends were dying.” Over the course of 7 years, she documented more than 1,300 physician suicides in the United States with the help of individuals who have lost colleagues and loved ones. She maintains a suicide prevention hotline for medical students and doctors.

On her website, Dr. Wible calls high physician suicide rates a “public health crisis.” She states many conclusions from the stories she’s collected, among them that anesthesiologists are at highest risk for suicide among physicians.

The claim that doctors have a high suicide rate is a common one beyond Dr. Wible’s documentation project. Frequently cited papers contend that 300 physicians commit suicide per year, and that physicians’ suicide rate is higher than the general population. Researchers presenting at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in 2018 said physicians have the highest suicide rate of any profession – double that of the general population, with one completed suicide every day – and Medscape’s coverage of the talk has been widely referenced as supporting evidence.

A closer look at the data behind these claims, however, reveals the difficulty of establishing reliable statistics. Dr. Wible acknowledges that her data are limited. “We do not have accurate numbers. These [statistics] have come to me organically,” she said. Incorrectly coded death certificates are one reason it’s hard to get solid information. “When we’re trying to figure out how many doctors do die by suicide, it’s very hard to know.”

Similar claims have been made at various times about dentists, construction workers, and farmers, perhaps in an effort to call attention to difficult working conditions and inadequate mental health care. Overall, the claims about physician suicide are “widely quoted as fact without any clear evidence,” said Katherine J. Gold, MD, MSW, MS, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who researches physician wellness, mental health, and suicide. It’s critical to know the accurate numbers, she said, “so we can know if we’re making progress.”

Scrutinizing a statistic

The idea for the research presented at the APA meeting in 2018 came up a year earlier “when there were quite a number of physician deaths by suicide,” lead author Omotola T’Sarumi, MD, psychiatrist and chief resident at Columbia University’s Harlem Hospital in New York at the time of the presentation, said in an interview. The poster describes the methodology as a systematic review of research articles published in the last 10 years. Dr. T’Sarumi and colleagues concluded that the rate was 28-40 suicides per 100,000 doctors, compared with a rate of 12.3 per 100,000 for the general population. “That just stunned me,” she said. “We should be doing better.” A peer-reviewed article on the work has not been published.

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