One in 16 surgeons had suicidal thoughts in the past year, according to a survey of nearly 8,000 U.S. surgeons published in a recent issue of Archives of Surgery. The prevalence among surgeons was similar to that in the general population for those aged 25 to 44; however, rates were substantially higher among surgeons aged 45 and older.

“We know the lifetime risk of depression among physicians is similar to that of the general population, which suggests factors other than depression may be contributing to increased risk of suicide among physicians,” Tait D. Shanafelt, MD, tells Physician’s Weekly. “The influence of professional characteristics in forms of distress and depression, such as burnout, has been largely unexplored.”

According to Dr. Shanafelt, in addition to burnout, there appear to be occupational risks for having suicidal thoughts: A three-fold increased risk for suicidal thoughts was reported for surgeons who made a recent major medical error.

A further finding from the survey was that only 26% of surgeons who reported suicidal ideation sought psychiatric or psychologic help, while 60% were reluctant to seek help due to concerns about their medical license.

“We need to be mindful of the organizational characteristics that may contribute to burnout as it pertains to workload, call schedule, and inefficiencies that may put physicians at risk for burnout,” says Dr. Shanafelt, lead author of the study. “Organizations should also recognize times when physicians might have a substantial increased risk, such as following a medical error or during a malpractice suit, and build into those processes support systems for physicians.”

For the full interview with Dr. Shanafelt, keep an eye out for the upcoming article on suicidal ideation among surgeons in our Physician’s Weekly newsletter.