The life of a surgeon is filled with stress, which can lead to increased instances of suicidal thoughts. (Photo Credit: Public Domain/U.S. Air Force)

Dealing with long hours, insurance companies, corner-cutting administrators and the Byzantine labyrinth of surgery do’s and dont’s apparently is enough to make surgeons crazy. According to the Associated Press, that kind of stress leads to medical errors, as well as feelings of burnout and depression. A study published in the January issue of Archives of Surgery found that this has led to a higher rate of contemplated suicide among surgeons than the general public.

Surgeons fear the path of healing

Not only are surgeons much more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, but the American College of Surgeons-commissioned, 8,000-person e-mail study found that surgeons are also less likely to seek help than those in other professions who struggle with thoughts of killing themselves. Study respondents indicated that fear of losing their jobs ranked highest among reasons for not seeking treatment. Only one-fourth of those who admitted to having such thoughts ever sought professional help. Other studies have shown that 44 percent of the general population seeks help after struggling with thoughts of suicide.

In total, 6 percent of the 8,000 surgeons who responded claimed they’d experienced suicidal thoughts, compared with 3 percent of the general population. For those surgeons who had recently committed a major medical error, the rate jumped to 16 percent. Whether that was the exact cause could not be determined conclusively from study results, however.

Self-medicating with antidepressants

Rather than seek the assistance of trained mental health professionals, surgeons in the study admitted that they were much more likely to self-medicate with antidepressants rather than openly expose something that could place their medical license in jeopardy.

Yet this creates a dangerous situation for patients and physicians, said study authors Dr. Kelly McCoy and Dr. Sally Carty from the University of Pittsburgh medical school. The depression, burnout and human error that can lead a surgeon to contemplate suicide are factors that should not be ignored. In a surgical environment that prizes perfection, resilience and self-denial, any error can be interpreted as abject failure. Yet rather than isolating oneself in shame and self-loathing, McCoy and Carty believe that real treatment is the best affirmation a suffering surgeon can get.


Associated Press

Promo for PBS documentary on physician suicide

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