High suicide rate among medics

By Niall Hunter-Editor

The increasing pressures involved in being a doctor are leading to high stress levels and suicide in members of the profession, it has been claimed.

Dr John Murphy, Editor of the Irish Medical Journal, says over the past decade the magnitude of the difficulties facing doctors in their working lives has begun to be appreciated.

He says a recent analysis of 25 research studies relating to doctor suicides had ‘worrying findings’.

It was found that the suicide rate among women doctors is 130% higher than among women in general and 40% higher among male doctors than among men in general.

Doctors most commonly take their own lives by poisoning themselves with drugs taken from their own offices, and doctors who make a suicide attempt are more likely to succeed than others who may attempt suicide.

Dr Murphy says while the reasons behind the high doctor suicide rate are difficult to explain a number of factors may be involved.

Firstly, the work is difficult and the long 'out of hours' work can lead to social isolation.

Also, there is an increased likelihood, according to Dr Murphy, that doctors' social networks and family life can be disturbed by the way they work.

He says the nature and intensity of on-call work in modern medicine is a contributory factor to increasing stress and illness levels among doctors.

A recent Canadian study of junior doctors, who were working an average shift lasting 25 hours, found that they had high levels of dehydration, excessive exertion and starvation, and some of the doctors had heart abnormalities.

Medical duties, particularly those with a high emergency component, cause a heightened mental and physical alertness which is exhausting, and the threat of litigation is also a stress factor, Dr Murphy points out.

One of the wearying features of litigation is its protracted course over a number of years, Dr Murphy points out.

Writing in an editorial in the journal, he says the higher suicide rates among women doctors is worrying.

"There is no clear explanation for the gender difference. The constant effort to balance professional and family commitments can be stressful."

Dr Murphy points out that doctors frequently neglect their health and a recent study in Ireland found that 30% of female doctors had never had a cervical screen.

In a study published in the current issue of the Irish Medical Journal it is report that female doctors find some parts of their work more stressful than males do; including demands of the job and patient expectations, emergency calls during surgery and seeking emotional social support.

Dr Murphy says women doctors tend to be reluctant to complain about unfavourable working conditions because they perceive that it may adversely affect their careers.

He says the needs of women doctors need to be better looked after and workloads of doctors should not be allowed mount up over time.

Doctors, he says should also be taught from early in their careers that while they might be the solution to a patient's illness, they are not the cause of it.

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