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Why You Should Know Your Doctor’s State of Mind

There’s an epidemic of depression among doctors, and when physicians struggle, patients suffer. Here’s what you can do.

Peter Dazeley/Getty
Peter Dazeley/Getty,

by Sarah Mahoney

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A recent study finds that some 29 percent of newdoctors—overworked, suffering from sleep deprivationand saddled with debt—show signs of depression.. And while that’s bad news for them, including an increased risk for suicide, it’s not great news for the people they treat, either. Here’s why it’s good to be aware of your doctor’s state of mind.

See also: The Right Workplace For Your Mental Health

The study combed through data from 54 studies conducted over a 50-year period based on some 17,500 young doctors, “and provides a real wake-up call,” says Srijan Sen, M.D., Ph.D., senior author of the research, and a member of University of Michigan’s Depression Center. Despite many changes medical schools have made in the way they train young doctors, “at best, the doctor depression rate is staying the same, and in many cases, the rate is getting higher. That goes against what people had thought, and shows the changes in training haven’t been working.”

Doctors only spend 8 percent of their time with patients, and 50 to 60 percent of their time in front of computers.

Srijan Sen, M.D., Ph.D., University of Michigan’s Depression Center

Sen, who runs the Intern Health Study, an effort that tracks some 3,000 medical interns from 50 locations for their first year of training, says that certainly, the exhausting hours are part of the problem. But higher student debt is also likely to be a factor, as is the changing nature of medicine. “One thing that has changed dramatically is how little time we have with patients,” he says. “These doctors only spend 8 percent of their time with patients, and 50 to 60 percent of their time in front of computers,” linked to higher rates of doctor burnout and depression.

And of course, poor mental health can have dire consequences for doctors, with male physicians between 1.5 and two times as likely to commit suicide as the general population, and female physicians four times as likely to.

But these depressed doctors aren’t good for patients, either. “They’re more likely to commit medical errors, and to be less empathetic.”

And he says there is little patients can do to protect themselves. First, most people spend very little time with doctors, anyway. And second, “doctors tend to be really good at masking their depression.” He hopes the results will spur more medical schools to focus on mental health basics, including helping depressed doctors find a healthy work/life balance.

Meanwhile, it’s one more reason to make sure you are seeing Dr. Right.The U.S. Office of Disease Preventionsays asking yourself four simple questions after seeing anew doctor can help make sure you get the care youdeserve, and that your doctor isn't suffering from burnout. Did he or she ….

*Make you feel comfortable during your appointment?

*Spend enough time with you?

*Give you a chance to ask questions? 

*Answer your questions clearly?