Doctors At High Risk For Depression & Suicide, Survey Says

By Kelly Burch 01/21/19

About 15% of physicians are depressed, and 44% say they are burned out, according to a recent survey.

stressed out doctor

Physicians are tasked with taking care of others, but a new study suggests that their own health often suffers due to the pace and demands of their profession, putting them at high risk for burnout and even death by suicide. 

According to Reuters, doctors are more likely than people in any other profession to die by suicide. About 15% of physicians are depressed, and 44% say they are burned out, according to a recent survey by Medscape. On average, a doctor dies by suicide more than once a day. 

“There is a passionate argument surrounding the data and discourse about who’s to blame for this situation.” Dr. Carter Lebares, director of the Center for Mindfulness in Surgery at the University of California, San Francisco said that there are many factors contributing to this epidemic. 

“Quotes from respondents in the Medscape survey capture this very poignantly: anger over a broken system, loss of time with patients, being asked to sacrifice dwindling personal time to ‘fix ourselves,’ and demoralization that the only way out is to quit or severely curtail our work,” she said. 

The survey showed that administrative duties were the biggest cause of stress, with 59% of physicians feeling taxed by them. The other top stressors were spending too much time at work, not being paid enough or fretting over electronic records — about one-third of doctors said they were affected by each of these. 20% of respondents said they felt “like just a cog in a wheel.”

Lebares said that doctors need to be taught to manage their stress in healthier ways. 

"The approach we promote and champion in our research and programming for surgeons includes cognitive training for stress reduction through mindful meditation training; learning skills for advocacy; and engaging the institution to address broader change," she said. 

However, many physicians use unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with the stress of the job. 21% of female and 23% of male doctors said that they drink alcohol to cope, while 38% of females and 27% of males turn to junk food. 

Some have healthier habits for stress management: 52% of females and 37% of males say they talk to family and friends, while 51% of males and 43% of females exercise to alleviate burnout. 

Lebares said that the medical system needs a cultural change, particularly with more doctors retiring, which may contribute to a physician shortage. 

“Data are coming to suggest that an institutionally supported network of choices for wellbeing will be the answer -- some combination of things like limited [electronic records] time, increased ratio of patient time, better food choices at work and home, room for personal health (like exercise breaks), tailored mindfulness-based interventions, financial planning services or untraditionally structured jobs,” she said.

In the meantime, patients could be affected by physician burnout: Doctors reported making errors, expressing frustrations and not taking careful notes because of their exhaustion. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.