Supporting physician mental health with prevention protocols

  • Anesthesiologist Suicide: What Can Be Done?
  • 12-1 p.m. Saturday
  • West, Room 2001

Suicide among anesthesiologists is a major issue in this country. According to Pamela Wible, M.D., male anesthesiologists are at high risk of death by suicide, potentially higher than any other physician cohort. Dr. Wible has been keeping an unofficial tally of physician suicides in the U.S. and writing about it for the Washington Post and other outlets.

This afternoon’s session, “Anesthesiologist Suicide: What Can Be Done?” addresses contributing factors and what can be done to reduce the risk from an institutional perspective.

Ronald L. Harter, M.D., FASA, leads a panel discussion on anesthesiologist suicide.

“Whether suicide is increasing or decreasing, it’s a real problem for our specialty,” said Ronald L. Harter, M.D., FASA, the Jacoby Professor and Chair of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Dr. Harter will lead a panel on this complex and multifactorial issue. Dr. Harter is chair of the ASA Ad Hoc Committee on Anesthesiologist Suicide Rate and Speaker of the House of Delegates.

The panel features Lyuba Konopasek, M.D., a pediatrician and medical staff leader at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Dr. Konopasek has created various suicide prevention processes and protocols for medical staff and residents within her institution. She will discuss New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s program of identifying residents and physicians at risk. The program “Recognize, Respond and Refer” identifies medical personnel at risk, responds to them and refers them to appropriate resources for treatment.

Fellow ad hoc committee member and panelist Michael G. Fitzsimons, M.D., an Anesthesiologist with Massachusetts General Hospital, will discuss the signs for identifying colleagues at risk for mental health issues. Drawing upon his experience at MGH with residents with substance use disorders and other threats to physician health, Dr. Fitzsimons will offer ideas for helping those in need of intervention, along with potential barriers to providing appropriate treatment.

Panelists also will discuss helping colleagues overcome the personal barriers to seeking mental health assistance.

“One of the biggest contributing factors to physician suicide revolves around the stigma with seeking mental health resources,” Dr. Harter said.

One such stigma involves licensure and medical staff credentialing processes. To become licensed in some states, and/or to be granted practice credentials at many health care facilities, physicians may be asked: “Have you ever required mental health treatment?” Consequently, at-risk physicians may avoid seeking professional assistance for fear that checking the box will negatively impact their career.

The session will address the idea of making mental health screening part of annual medical staff wellness protocol.

“When everybody on staff is screened, it lowers the barrier to entry for getting mental health assistance. It simply becomes what we do for all medical staff,” Dr. Harter said.  “Physician suicide is a complex problem without easy solutions. But having an open conversation about it, recognizing the contributing factors and starting to identify ways to help people who are in crisis are the next steps. Our goal is to have attendees be aware of some of the resources they may want to use.”

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