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ACP offers guidance on physician suicide prevention and the role of a healing community from an ethics perspective

PHILADELPHIA, June 2, 2021 – — The American College of Physicians (ACP) today published a paper offering guidance regarding physician suicide and the role of a healing community from an ethics perspective. In Physician Suicide Prevention and the Ethics and Role of a Healing Community: An American College of Physicians Policy Paper,” published in The Journal of General Internal Medicine, ACP examines the issues that arise when individuals and institutions respond to physician suicides and when they engage in broader efforts aimed at physician suicide prevention.

The paper was developed by ACP’s Ethics, Professionalism and Human Rights Committee in response to the issue of suicide as a major global public health issue, and the increasing recognition of physician suicide.

Emphasizing the medical profession as a unique moral community characterized by ethical and professional commitments of service to patients, each other, and society, the paper offers fundamental ethical guidance regarding the response to physician suicide and how the community should engage in efforts to prevent physicians who die by suicide. Physicians have obligations not only to their patients but to themselves, each other and to society, concepts consistent with existing ACP policies and core values cited in ACP’s Ethics Manual.

The paper says the response to an individual physician suicide should be characterized by respect and concern for those who are grieving, the creation of a supportive environment for suicide loss survivors, and careful communication about the event. Because suicide is a complex problem, actions aimed at preventing suicide must occur at the individual, interpersonal, community, and societal levels. The medical community has an obligation to foster a culture that supports education, screening, and access.

“Like patients, physicians need to be supported by a healing community and the response to anyone who dies by suicide should be characterized by respect and concern,” said George M. Abraham, MD, MPH, FACP, President, ACP. “ACP supports the need for education, screening, and access to mental health treatment, beginning at the earliest stages of medical training.”

The paper examines issues that arise when individuals and institutions respond to physician suicides and when they engage in broader efforts aimed at physician suicide prevention. Topics addressed include:

  • The need for improved, but sensitive data collection surrounding physician suicide, including among medical students, residents, fellows, and practicing or non-practicing physicians.
  • A call for physicians to respond compassionately to events and communicate thoughtfully, in a transparent and confidential manner.
  • The need for learning from experience and closing the knowledge gap around the causes of physicians who die by suicide and implement efforts to prevent future suicides.
  • Calls for the medical community to reduce stigma and, in a unified manner, acknowledge grief, support its members in a safe environment, and better develop interventions and future preventive actions, including reluctance for physicians to seek mental health care for fear of damage to their career.
  • Addressing the unique environment and stressors that can arise during training for medical students and postgraduate trainees.
  • Studying further the relationship between burnout, depression, and suicidality.

In conclusion, Dr. Abraham adds, “The medical community’s commitment to foundational ethical principles and professional values, including the duty to care for the ill, shared accountability, respect for privacy and confidentiality, and transparent and honest communication can help transform it into a true healing community that also encourages self-care and physicians caring for one another.”

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About the American College of Physicians
The American College of Physicians is the largest medical specialty organization in the United States with members in more than 145 countries worldwide. ACP membership includes 163,000 internal medicine physicians (internists), related subspecialists, and medical students. Internal medicine physicians are specialists who apply scientific knowledge and clinical expertise to the diagnosis, treatment, and compassionate care of adults across the spectrum from health to complex illness. Follow ACP on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

ACP Media Contact: Andrew Hachadorian, (215) 351-2514, AHachadorian@acponline.org