Evanston, Illinois – Every year 300 to 400 physicians commit suicide in the United States, a number that is roughly the size of 3 average med school classes. A staggeringly high rate of suicide among medical residents and doctors has existed for quite some time now, but it has largely been under-reported and swept aside due to a culture of secrecy and the stigma attached to seeking help for mental illness and depression.

The buildup of stress often starts right in med school. There’s a high level of peer competitiveness and a vast amount of complex information to absorb and retain, which leads to long hours, sleep deprivation, and unhealthy habits. Students typically bottle this up and carry on, as any display of emotion or cry for help is viewed as a sign of weakness. And there is no let up once they start to practice. The emotional exhaustion, disillusionment, and struggle to keep pace with a rapidly changing healthcare environment takes a major toll.

Joan M. Anzia, MD, a psychiatrist, professor, and director of the residency program at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine sums it up well:

Much of the chronic distress that physicians experience is due to the culture of medical education and practice, the nature of our work, and stress imposed by the current health care environment. We are supposed to see more patients in less time and provide much more documentation. We work daily with human tragedy, illness, death, and loss. Many of us don’t take time off or debrief after adverse events or patient deaths. Instead, we move on to the next patient. It’s no wonder that more than half of physicians report being burned out.

Fortunately, there is a recent movement underway to institute change. A petition signed by more than 65,000 people this year is demanding that medical associations play a more active role in tracking these deaths, and find ways to offer confidential psychological support to medical students and physicians. And as a result, some groups are starting to move toward action. Last month, The Association of American Medical Colleges convened a special meeting to discuss solutions that address this growing issue, and another group, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, is starting to study resident deaths to determine how they could have been prevented, and what alerts and responses could be put in place to prevent future incidents.

Expect the noise around this issue to grow in upcoming months as the petition reaches it’s goal, and stories of families that have dealt with this tragedy continue to come to light. One big thing to watch is the upcoming film, Do No Harmwhich is still trying to gather funding, with a goal of completion by January 2017 and entry into the Sundance Film Festival.

Why it matters – 

As healthcare marketers, we need to understand all of the stress that HCPs face today. On the extreme end of the spectrum, this unrelenting stress can lead to mental illness and even death, but it can also lead to disillusionment, complacency, and resignation—these are the things that we can have an impact on. There are endless frustrations in working in medicine today. Our drugs and communications have to work hard not to be another of them. We need to give HCPs new strategies to tackle the persistent, aggravating challenges that they see—solutions that are easy to understand, trusted, and can be employed quickly and confidently.

For more of Dr. Anzia’s perspective on physician suicide and how she is responding at Northwestern, you can read her full article here.

About the Author:

Jeffrey Giermek