When you think of surgeons, you probably think of heroic exploits pulling patients back from the brink in the operating room. Maybe you picture an arrogant personality with a god complex. You probably don't think of indecisive, tortured, self-doubting souls. But some surgeons are just that.
That's the main conclusion of a study published this week in the Archives of Surgery.
Surgeons who are members of the American College of Surgeons were sent an anonymous survey that included questions regarding depression. Of nealy eight thousand surgeons surveyed, more than five hundred (6.3%) reported suicidal thoughts during the previous 12 months. Among surgeons 45 years and older, having suicidal thoughts was as much as three times more common than the general population. Only about a quarter of those with suicidal thoughts had sought help from a mental health professional. Those with recent suicidal thoughts were more likely to suffer from burnout as well. The authors called for studies to determine how to reduce suicidal thoughts among surgeons and how to eliminate barriers to surgeons' use of mental health resources.
The results of this study may surprise you, but not me. It demonstrates that surgeons are human like everybody else. Unfortunately, there is a culture in surgery as in medicine at large that abhors demonstrating human frailty. It is that factor that serves as the biggest barrier to confronting the mistakes that physicians and surgeons make.
If you think I'm advocating unmasking mistake-ridden colleagues, guess again. I'm as flawed as they are. I think the "name, blame, shame" game we play and society seems to enjoy only makes things less safe for you. All that does is encourage cover-ups. The main problem with rooting out the flawed health professional is that soon, there will be no one left to care for us.
What we need is to foster a new culture in health care in which physicians, surgeons and other health care providers are encouraged to and applauded for talking about the mistakes they make. And, we need to reward the surgical colleagues who have the courage to ask for help.