Grim findings for female doctor suicide

3 minute read

Female medical practitioners have a suicide rate two and a half times higher than women in other professions


Female medical practitioners have a suicide rate two and a half times higher than women in other professions, a study of health professionals suggests.

The increased risk was not seen in male medical professionals, though male nurses and midwives committed suicide at a rate one and a half times higher than their counterparts outside healthcare, the retrospective study found.

The grim findings come from an age-standardised study of 369 suicides by a range of different health professionals over the 12 years to 2012, led by Dr Allison J Milner of Deakin University in collaboration with researchers from the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health. The study, which included 17 suicides by female medical practitioners and 167 by female nurses and midwives, was published in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

The researchers used occupationally-coded data from the National Coronial Information System (NCIS) for the first-of-its-kind Australia-wide study. They noted suicide might be underreported because of differences between states and individual coroners.

Health professionals were grouped into three categories – medical practitioners, nurses and midwives, and those in other health professions such as pharmacy and optometry.

The researched confirmed an available means of suicide was significant, with a 62% higher rate among health professionals who had ready access to prescription medications. Just over half of doctors on the register committed suicide by self-poisoning, compared with 10% of  those in other professions.

The findings suggest suicide rates across the general working population have slightly decreased over time, but that younger working people are more likely to take their own lives than older working people.

Understanding the stressors and risk factors female doctors experience might assist with targeted prevention strategies, the authors said.

Work-family conflict, high job demands, and fear of making mistakes at work could contribute to anxiety and depression, as could the exposure of those in caring professions to trauma, and the stress of owning and operating a small business, they said.

Gender role stress – with female doctors feeling pressure to undertake childcare and household roles – was also a possible stressor.

In a co-published MJA editorial, Emeritus Professor Robert D Goldney, from the University of Adelaide, said the proposition of targeted prevention strategies was “not realistic” given the small size of the problem.

He noted a UK study of 223 doctor suicides over a 17-year period also found an elevated rate among female medical professionals.

People might “select for themselves the helping professions in order to fulfil their own dependency needs”, he said.

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