NEW YORK (Reuters) - A considerable number of U.S. surgeons struggle with thoughts of suicide, with burnout and past medical errors as possible reasons, according to a survey covering thousands of surgeons.
A team led by Tait Shanafelt of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota found that more than 6 percent of surgeons had thought about killing themselves within the past year.
Among those aged 55 to 64, the number was three times higher than national levels for that age group.
"What we are seeing through this work is that there is a high amount of burnout and stress among America's physicians, with potentially serious consequences for both physicians and their patients," Shanafelt said.
"It isn't necessarily that having thoughts of suicide endangers patient health, but some of the same root causes, particularly burnout, do appear to have a strong relationship with quality of care."
In a survey published last year, Shanafelt's team found that surgeons who reported high degrees of emotional exhaustion on the job also had higher odds of making major errors when they dealt with patients.
The same survey, based on responses from more than 7,900 physicians, for the current study, which appears in the Archives of Surgery.
While younger surgeons had rates of suicidal thinking that were similar to those in the general population, between 6 and 7 percent, those older than 45 were at increased risk.
Among those 55 to 64 years old, 7 percent of surgeons had considered suicide within the past year, compared to about 2 percent of the general population.
Doctors who felt burned out, or said they'd made a "major medical error" in the past 3 months, were more prone to suicidal thoughts.
Married surgeons, and those working in large university-based medical centers, were at lower risk for suicidal thoughts.
The survey also showed that only a fourth of the troubled surgeons had sought professional help, with most saying they hadn't out of fear of losing their medical license.
Instead, some chose to self-prescribe antidepressants or have friends do it for them.
"We've known for some time that physicians are at greater risk for suicide than other professions, although why that is has never really been understood," Shanafelt told Reuters Health.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, there were about 11 suicide deaths per 100,000 Americans in 2007.
Reporting by Frederik Joelving at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies