Special Feature

Female Physicians at Greater Risk for Suicide

By Carol A. Kemper, MD, FACP, Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine, Stanford University, Division of Infectious Diseases, Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, Section Editor, Updates, Section Editor, HIV. Dr. Kemper reports no financial relationship to this field of study.

This article first appeared in the January 2008 issue of Infectious Disease Alert.

Source: Peterson MR, Burnett CA. The suicide mortality of working physicians and dentists. Occupational Medicine Advance Access published October 27, 2007

Female physicians have more than twice the rate of suicide as other professional women and are proportionally at greater risk compared with their male physician counterparts. That was the unhappy conclusion of these authors who examined the National Occupational Mortality Surveillance Data for 26 states in the United States from 1984-1992. Age-standardized suicide rates were calculated for male and female physicians and male dentists (there were too few female dentists to assess); data for white vs non-white workers were also examined.

White male physicians > 45 years of age had two times the rate of suicide as their white female physician counterparts. But when proportional risk assessments to other working groups were made, women were at far greater risk relative to their working professional female colleagues. In contrast, because the overall rate of suicide for men in the general population is 5 times higher than that for women, the proportional rate for male physicians relative to their male counterparts were significantly less than the proportional rate for female physicians relative to their female counterparts. (White male dentists had similar suicide rates to white male physicians). Suicide rates for male physicians was similar to that for other male professionals, but lower than non-professionals. In addition, suicide rates for men < 45 years of age were lower than then their older colleagues, and clearly increased with age. Suicide rates in women were not age-related.

Similar results were observed by the AMA in the 1960s-1970s. That earlier data also found a higher risk of suicide in female physicians, but also found that location may be an important factor, as may the physician speciality, neither of which was examined in the current study.