In recognition of National Physician Suicide Awareness Day, The Physicians Foundation today released the results of a national survey, which finds that nearly 1 in 4 physicians (22%) know a physician who committed suicide and the majority (58%) express feelings of burnout. The survey, COVID-19’s Impact on Physician Wellbeing, is the second in the Foundation’s three-part series, 2020 Survey of America’s Physicians, examining how COVID-19 is affecting and is perceived by the nation’s physicians.
“Physician wellbeing was a public health crisis long before COVID-19. Now, we’re seeing the pandemic exacerbating this issue,” said Gary Price, MD, president of The Physicians Foundation. “With nearly half of physicians telling us that COVID-19 won’t be under control until mid-year 2021, it’s critical we do more to support physicians who are fighting on the frontlines and putting their lives at risk to care for patients. We must address physician suicide.”
Increased Rate of Burnout
Physician burnout rates were already at an all-time high prior to the pandemic and have increased significantly over the past six months. The Physicians Foundation’s 2018 Survey of America’s Physicians found that 40% of physicians often or always experienced feelings of burnout.
In the current survey, 50% of physicians reported experiencing inappropriate anger, tearfulness or anxiety as a result of COVID-19’s effects on their practice or employment.
The findings also highlight physicians’ coping mechanisms in the face of prolonged uncertainty. Eighteen percent reported increasing their use of medications, alcohol or illicit drugs, while 13% of physicians sought medical attention for a mental health problem as a result of COVID-19’s effects on their practice or employment situation.
As the survey reveals the negative effects of COVID-19 on physicians’ wellbeing, the findings also highlight the key role of support systems. Nearly all (90%) physicians cite their family as integral in supporting their wellbeing, followed by friends (83%) and colleagues (73%).
Institutions also have provided support in meaningful ways. Fifty-six percent of physicians said their medical practice or group has been helpful to their mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic, 40% said their hospital or health system has been helpful, 34% said their specialty society has been helpful and 23% said their state medical society has been helpful.
“With 13% of physicians seeking mental health support, it’s clear we need a nation-wide effort to uplift and care for those on the frontlines of the pandemic,” said Robert Seligson, CEO of The Physicians Foundation. “There are two main reasons that so few physicians seek help – stigma and fearing a loss of their license. But just like anyone else, physicians are people and should feel comfortable seeking help without worry of being judged or losing their right to practice.”
In addition to the 22% of physicians who know a doctor who committed suicide, findings from the survey include:
- Twenty-six percent of physicians know a colleague who has considered suicide and 15% know a colleague who has attempted suicide.
- Eight percent of physicians have had thoughts of self-harm as a result of COVID-19’s effects on their practice or employment, with younger physicians reporting thoughts of self-harm at a higher rate than older physicians.
- Thirty percent of physicians cited feelings of hopelessness or having no purpose due to the changes of their practice or employment as a result of COVID-19.
- Seventy-eight percent cite a lack of population compliance with COVID-19 distancing and mask-wearing protocols as their number one source of frustration during the pandemic and 70% cite lack of reliable COVID-19 tests.
“It’s painfully clear that America’s physicians need our support,” said Ripley Hollister, MD, a board member and chair of The Physicians Foundation’s Research Committee. “As this pandemic drags on, physician wellbeing will continue to suffer, and burnout and suicide rates will continue to increase if we don’t act now.”
These findings contribute to the growing body of evidence surrounding increased physician burnout and suicide rates, which highlights the need for solutions. To address this, The Physicians Foundation created Vital Signs to empower physicians, along with their colleagues and loved ones, to check in on one another’s wellbeing. The initiative provides tools to help understand the warning signs to look for in someone who may be suicidal. In addition, Vital Signs provides a guide to help start a conversation with a physician who may need support.
“The systemic factors driving burnout have become exacerbated in the face of this ongoing pandemic. We must break the culture of silence surrounding clinician burnout and mental health issues,” commented Corey and Jennifer Breen, brother-in-law and sister of the late Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency physician who died from suicide. “We created the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation to continue her legacy in hopes that no other family will have to experience such a devastating loss.”
To explore Vital Signs, click here. The website is intended for educational purposes only. If you need further guidance or are in a crisis, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255) for free 24/7 support.
The Physicians Foundation’s 2020 Survey of America’s Physicians: COVID-19 Impact Edition -Part Two of Three: COVID-19’s Impact on Physician Wellbeing was sent by email to a list of physicians derived from an American Medical Association/Physician Master File approved vendor, and to physicians in Merritt Hawkins’ proprietary database. The survey was sent from August 17 to August 25, 2020. It was received by more than 500,000 physicians nationwide. Data is based on 2,334 responses, with a margin of error (MOE) of +/- 2.03%.