Too Often, Doctors Miss Suicide's Warning Signs: Study

THURSDAY Feb. 27, 2014, 2014 -- Nearly 37,000 Americans kill themselves each year, according to federal statistics. But many of those deaths might have been prevented if doctors had been better at picking up on the warning signs of suicide, a new study suggests.

"A national suicide reduction goal may be met if more primary care doctors and specialists receive and use training to identify and treat patients most at risk," study lead author Brian Ahmedani, an assistant scientist in the Center for Health Policy and Health Services Research at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, said in a statement from the health system.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide remains the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and is the leading cause of injury-related death, recently topping deaths tied to car accidents.

However, the new study finds that physicians often fail to spot mental health problems in people who commit suicide, even though most of these people consult with doctors or other health providers in the months before they kill themselves.

In the study, Ahmedani's team looked at the medical records of almost 5,900 health plan members living in eight states who committed suicide between 2000 and 2010.

Eighty-three percent of them had received medical care within the year prior to killing themselves, and 20 percent had seen a health care worker the week before they died. But, they were diagnosed with a mental health problem less than half the time -- 45 percent, Ahmedani's team said.

"The data clearly told us that although a large proportion of those who committed suicide had health system contact in the year before their death, a mental health diagnosis was commonly absent," Ahmedani said. "Greater efforts need to be made to assess mental health and suicide risk. And because most visits occurred in primary care or medical specialty settings, suicide prevention in these clinics would likely reach the largest number of individuals."

The study appears in the February issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

More information

There's more on suicide's warning signs at the American Psychological Association.

Posted: February 2014


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