US physicians have the highest rate of suicide among all professions. Who is going to save their lives?

According to a literature review presented at the American Psychiatry Association (APA) 2018 annual meeting in May, one physician commits suicide every day in the United States, becoming the profession with the highest suicide rate. Among every 100,000 physicians, 28 to 40 commit suicide, thus doubling the suicide rate from the national average. Coincidentally, many of those physicians were diagnosed with mood disorders, alcoholism, and substance abuse.

In the same month, a fourth-year medical student and a psychiatry resident at NYU committed suicide within one week of the other. These series of unfortunate events have finally sparked a renewed debate in healthcare. A poll later taken by Medscape found that 65% of physicians, 41% of nurses/advanced practice registered nurses, and 38% of medical students knew or know a physician who has tried or completed suicide. Depression (32%), burnout (31%), and stress (28%) are the top three reasons that contributed most to physician suicide, the poll shows.

These shocking numbers are only the tip of the iceberg of a broken healthcare system. When physicians suffer from mental illness and experience low quality of life, there is an increase in the occurrence of medical errors; we ultimately risk patient injury or death. Every hospital physician treats thousands of patients each year. In light of the sky-high suicide rate of physicians, over 100,000 patients’ health and safety are jeopardized. However, this leaves a lingering, yet very crucial question: who is caring for the health of our physicians?

“Doctors who take an oath to save lives are taking their own at an alarming rate, trapped in a toxic system that threatens ALL patients.”

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Robyn Symon, a two-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, used a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for her documentary “DO NO HARM”. The documentary exposes a truly sad epidemic from a broken and insensitive healthcare system that puts many lives at risk. When a physician is not functional mentally or physically, how could people expect good quality of patient care? Does that at least partly explain the fact that medical errors are the third leading cause of death in the United States? Physicians are supposed to be people’s healers, yet they experience the highest suicide rate of any profession. This must-watch documentary examines those friends and families who live through these tragedies. For the first time, their voices are heard and taken seriously. “DO NO HARM” has further helped expose this silent epidemic to advocate for improvements in our healthcare system.

Experts are certainly looking for ways to fix it. The Canadian National Study of Interprofessional Relationships between Physicians and Hospital Administrators from 2008-2013 (CANSIRPH) by Dr. Samadi-niya showed that the interprofessional relationships between physicians and healthcare administrators play a critical role in improving healthcare systems and patient care quality. The research also revealed that communication and teamwork as well as Health Information Technology (HIT) have great impact on physician satisfaction and patient care quality. Technology has been known to change the way people communicate and work with each other. The right channel and tools allow people to be themselves, more conversational, and more human. Effective use of HIT can tremendously improve communication and teamwork, thus improving healthcare systems. Implementation of HIT such as “Socially Intelligent Staff Scheduling” tools (https://meshai.io/) is a giant step towards saving our physicians and their patients.

Luyao Wang