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Errors, burnout lead surgeons to eye suicide

A study suggests medical errors, job burnout and depression lead surgeons to contemplate suicide at higher rates than the general public, and they're much less likely to seek help.

Fear of losing their jobs contributes to surgeons' reluctance to get mental health treatment, according to the study. Nearly 8,000 surgeons participated.

About 6 percent reported recent suicidal thoughts; the rate was 16 percent among those who had made a recent major medical error although it wasn't known if that was the reason.

Only about 25 percent of those with suicidal thoughts said they had sought professional mental health. By contrast, among the general population, about 3 percent have suicidal thoughts, and 44 percent of them seek mental health treatment, other studies have shown.

"Surgeons reported a great deal of concern about potential repercussions for their license to practice medicine," and many admitted self-medicating with antidepressant drugs, said lead author Dr. Tait Shanafelt of the Mayo Clinic.

Arkansas Dr. Robert Lehmberg, 63, said it took prodding from close friends to finally get him to seek treatment for depression and suicidal thoughts several years ago. Though he feared losing his license and being stigmatized, neither happened, and he said medication and psychotherapy have greatly helped.

Working 60 to 80 hours weekly in a busy Little Rock, Ark. plastic surgery office contributed to his depression, but Lehmberg said he was careful to avoid medical errors.

"Surgeons are taught that the patient is their responsibility, period. So absolutely, if something goes wrong, the surgeons I know take it very personally," Lehmberg said. He was not involved in the study. Lehmberg now works in palliative care, helping ease suffering in dying patients.

The study appears in the January issue of Archives of Surgery. It was commissioned by the American College of Surgeons and surveyed members of that group by e-mail. Answers were anonymous.

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