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A recent study reported that 25% to 33% of medical residents are suffering from physician depression or at least have the symptoms of depression. These results have wide implications regarding the mental health and stability of physicians and how well they can take care of their patients.

These results shine a light on an important issue regarding graduate medical school, because the occurrence of physician depression among residents is a lot higher than depression among those in the general population. Since depression has been associated with a higher risk of having future incidents of depression and greater morbidity long-term, these findings show that the health long-term of resident doctors may be affected.

Physician depression is also linked to suicide, with 300 to 400 physicians each year taking their own lives in the U.S, says the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This amounts to about one physician suicide a day.

It is highly likely that the depression occurring among residents may be affecting patient-care, given the link between physician depression and patients receiving lower-quality care.

In the study referred to in the JAMA article, researchers analyzed 54 different studies that were published from 1963 to 2015. These studies examined the prevalence of depressive symptoms or depression occurring in over 17,500 resident physicians. It was found that physician depression occurred in 21% to 43% of the residents, and overall 28.8% of them suffered from depressive symptoms or depression. They also found that physician depression went up as the calendar year progressed.

In a subsequent analysis of 7 different longitudinal studies, it was shown that after residency training started, symptoms of depression increased. The analysis didn’t show any statistically significant difference between medical interns as opposed to upper-level medical residents, or nonsurgical residents as opposed to both nonsurgical residents and surgical residents.

The rise in physician depression is alarming, especially when you consider the reforms and changes that have been made over time in an attempt to improve the mental health and well being of residents as well as the health of their patients. Although many teaching hospitals and medical schools have dealt with issues surrounding the mental health of students and trainees in recent years, it’s clear that more must be done.

The findings in these recent studies reveal a more accurate picture of how prevalent physician depression is, and the hope is that more focus will be put on the factors negatively affecting the mental health and well being of younger doctors. The goal would be to identify strategies that could prevent depression as well as ways to treat physician depression among those in graduate medical programs.

Solutions to this problem would be: to provide depressed physicians, interns and residents with better mental health care and have it more readily available; trainees perhaps should have limited exposure to the kinds of environments and systems that may be contributing to a decline in their mental health and well being; and to consider changing the entire medical education and training system to prevent physician depression, or at least minimize it.

Treatment for physician depression can be highly successful.

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