“Across the country doctors are jumping from hospital rooftops, overdosing in hospital call rooms, found hanging in hospital chapels – it’s the medical profession’s dirty little secret and it’s covered up by our hospitals, clinics and medical schools.”
These shocking revelations come from Pamela Wible, a family physician who started looking into the incredibly high rate of suicide amongst doctors and medical students after the hospital she worked at lost a third doctor to suicide in 18 months.
Wible has spent the last five years on a personal quest to find out why so many doctors commit suicide. She speaks and writes about suicide and has published a book of doctors’ suicide notes after studying 757 doctor suicides.
This not a pretty story.
According to Wible, there has been a high suicide rate amongst doctors for more than 150 years, and the root causes are known, but remain unaddressed.
One million Americans lose their doctors to suicide each year, she says.
Some doctors have lost up to eight colleagues to suicide during their career!
People who want to save lives are drawn to the medical profession — ironically it’s this very profession that leads them to take their own lives.
Wible highlights the following factors that contribute to the high suicide rate amongst doctors and medical trainees.
Suicide is the ultimate punishment for losing a patient. It hurts a lot to lose a patient and sometimes doctors can’t forgive themselves for it. In several cases, the death of a patient seemed to be the key factor in pushing them over the edge.
Malpractice suits leads to public display of human errors in court, on TV and in the media. Online it lasts forever. Apart from the damage to a career, many doctors continue to regret having unintentionally harmed someone else.
Academic distress kills medical students’ dreams. Failing medical-board exams and not getting a post-medical-school assignment in a specialty of choice has led to suicides. Doctors can be shattered if they fail to gain a residency:
Assembly-line medicine kills doctors. Doctors are pressured by administrators to deal with patients in 15 minutes slots. If they take longer (because they care about the patient, or the case is complex) they are penalized for “inefficiency” or “low productivity”. If caring doctors can’t care for their patients properly, they may become suicidal.
“Many doctors cite inhumane working conditions in their suicide notes,” says Wible.
Sleep deprivation increase suicide risk. It is common for medical trainees to work nonstop for 24 hours or more without a break.
“Physicians report hallucinations, life-threatening seizures, depression and suicide due to sleep deprivation. Fatigued doctors have felt responsible for harming patients,” says Wible.
Some doctors kill themselves for fear of harming a patient because they know they haven’t had enough sleep.
Institutions accuse doctors of “burnout” to deflect attention from unsafe working conditions that cause doctors distress.
When doctors are punished with loss of residency positions or hospital privileges due to mental health conditions cause by their working conditions, they can become even more hopeless and desperate.
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Doctors are not seeking help for their distress
Doctors who need help don’t seek it because they fear mental health care won’t remain confidential.
So what do they do?
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, says Wible.
The thing is: even if confidential care were available, physicians in training simply don’t have the time to find help when working 80 to 100 or more hours per week.
Doctors are regularly exposed to severe trauma
Doctors in ER are exposed to severe trauma on a continual basis. When they are not afforded the time to process the loss of a patient, they can become emotionally warn out and can suddenly snap.
Some develop on-the-job post-traumatic stress disorder, says Wible. She relates the case of an ER doctor who contacted her after he had attempted to commit suicide.
“Funny thing is, I was as happy as I had ever been in my personal life. My decision to end it all was 100 percent work-related,” he told her.
The doctor had treated a girl in the ER for flu and then released her. She ended up back in the ER 30 hours later in respiratory distress and eventually died. His job was in jeopardy, writes Wible.
“When I got home in the early-morning hours, I was just sad. I cried for the girl and her family. I cried myself to sleep and woke up still sad. . . . There’s a saying we have in the emergency room when we witness trauma and death among the innocent: A little piece of my soul died. . . . We’re almost never offered counselling, and in the end you get the jaded emergency doctor who struggles to care. My psychologist says it wasn’t just the last girl. It was trauma after trauma after trauma.”
No time for their own pain
“Like everyone else, doctors have personal problems. We get divorced, have custody battles, infidelity, disabled children, deaths in our families. Yet working 60 to 80 or more hours per week immersed in our patients’ pain means we often have no time to deal with our own,” says Wible.
Things have to change
There are no regulations limiting the hours attending physicians can work and this creates a dangerous situation: burnt-out doctors who make mistakes and patients who suffer or die as a consequence.
We can’t keep on ignoring doctor suicides. The secrecy has to stop. Doctors have a huge responsibility which takes a huge emotional toll and that has to be acknowledged and addressed.
How can we as a society allow the very people who save our lives to go uncared for? To be pushed to the limit week in and week out; year in and year out.
Of course something will snap.
You can get a more information and see Wible’s TEDMed below.
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