Healthcare News & Insights

Will physician suicide affect your hospital?

Did you know the majority of U.S. physicians are stressed or burned out? And not only does job stress and burnout lead to greater turnover, which is costly for hospitals, it also plays a much larger role in physician suicides than it does among nonphysician suicides.

In fact, problems with work were three times more likely to have contributed to a physician’s suicide than a nonphysician’s, according to a national analysis by Dr. Katherine Gold, MSW, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues published in MedPage Today. The survey looked at 31,636 suicide victims from 2003 to 2008 and 203 of them were physicians.

Another study conducted in September 2011 by Cejka Search and Physician Wellness Services (PWS) found almost 87% of 2,000 physicians surveyed said they were moderately to severely stressed or burned out. Nearly 63% said their stress has increased moderately to dramatically in the past three years.

The actual numbers are probably even higher given not all states have a violent death reporting system, and physician suicide and incidences of mental illness are under-reported and deliberately miscoded due to the stigma attached to them.

Physicians go untreated for mental health disorders to protect their confidentiality and because they’re afraid that a depression diagnosis could hurt their medical licensing.

Top causes of stress and burnout

The good news is inadequate treatment and increased problems related to job stress are modifiable risk factors that if addressed could reduce suicide among hospital physicians.

So what can you do to help out your docs?

Find out what contributes to their stress through a survey. In the 2011 stress and burnout survey, the top four work-related stress factors were:

  • administrative demands of the job
  • long work hours
  • on-call schedules, and
  • concerns about medical malpractice lawsuits.

The top four external factors were:

  • the economy
  • healthcare reform
  • Medicare and Medicaid policies, and
  • unemployed and uninsured patients.

“Physicians are human beings with physical and emotional limitations,” said a survey respondent. “In order to perform better, we need better physical and emotional health, and [a better] work environment.”

What hospitals can do to help

The sad news is that only 15% of the 2,000 respondents said their organizations do anything to help them deal with stress and burnout.

“This study shows that healthcare organizations are not providing support for their physicians, and the physicians don’t know where to go for help,” said Dr. Alan Rosenstein, medical director of PWS. “While administrators can’t control external stress factors, such as reimbursement and government policies, there is tremendous opportunity for them to better understand and recognize that physicians are stressed and provide them with services and support so they can have more energy, achieve better work/life balance, and be more resilient in order to effectively manage their stress.”

To help mitigate physicians’ stress, there are several things healthcare organizations can do, such as:

  • giving physicians greater flexibility and control over their work hours
  • instituting some part-time work schedules for better work/life balance
  • using more advanced providers, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants
  • speaking openly about mental illness to avoid the stigma, and
  • providing education on stress and burnout.

After all, keeping physicians happy should be a hospital’s top priority, since doctors bring in a good portion of revenue via new patients and referrals.

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