A majority of states, including Minnesota, have medical licensure policies that discourage doctors from seeking attention for their own mental illnesses — which by extension could increase their risk of suicide and self-harm, Mayo Clinic researchers concluded in a study published last week.
Surveying 5,800 physicians, the researchers found that nearly 40 percent would be reluctant to seek mental health care because they would be compelled to disclose any diagnosis on licensure forms in most states.
The researchers examined 48 states and found that 32 asked compromising questions about current or former mental disorders on their initial licensing or renewal forms.
“We’re just as likely to get depressed as anybody else,” said Dr. Liselote Dyrbye, a Mayo physician who led the study, published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. “But in some states, if we seek care for depression, that can have an impact on our livelihoods and our ability to practice medicine.”
The Minnesota Board of Medical Practice asks prospective doctors to disclose mental or physical disorders, sustained in the five years before seeking licensure, that could impair their professional abilities if untreated. The renewal form asks whether doctors sustained disorders since their initial licensure.
Dyrbye said sanctions against doctors in the U.S. who disclose mental disorders could include restrictions on their medical practice, extra supervision and mandated therapy.
Stress is a rising problems for doctors in an era when patients are getting sicker, paperwork is getting more intensive, and grading systems publicly judge them on the care they provide and on whether patients like them. A prior study by Dyrbye and colleagues showed that more than half of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout in 2014. That was a 10 percent increase from 2011.
A separate study found that physicians have one of the highest rates of suicides of any occupational group in the U.S.
In Minnesota, 12 doctors died by suicide between 2014 and 2016, the most in any three-year period in at least two decades, according to a Star Tribune review of occupations listed on death certificates. But the review found only one doctor who died by suicide in Minnesota last year. Suicide numbers were higher last year for several other professions, including laborers, truck drivers and sales workers.
The Mayo researchers recommend that licensing boards ask physicians only about conditions currently being treated, and also about physical conditions that could impair their ability to practice medicine. That way, mental disorders wouldn’t be singled out.