One in four early career doctors have signs of depression

Long-work hours and stress have potentially dangerous consequences – for doctors and patients.

Researchers analyzed 50+ studies that looked for symptoms of depression in more than 17,500 medical residents. They found that 29 percent of physicians in training had signs of depression. The results of the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) are worrying for both doctors themselves and their patients. We speak with the study’s senior author, Srijan Sen, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, University of Michigan who worked with lead author Douglas Mata, of Harvard University to analyze the studies.

ResearchGate: What made you want to study depression among doctors?

Srijan Sen: Going through the experience of physician training ourselves, we noted how stressful the experience was and how many of our colleagues seemed to be suffering from depression.

RG: What were your results?

Sen: In our meta-analysis across 50+ studies, we found that 29 percent of residents screened positive for depression. We also found evidence of a small but significant increase in depression over time, with higher levels of depression among recent residents compared to those who trained decades ago.

RG: What are the signs of depression in new doctors?

Sen: After they start residency training, new doctors experience an increase in a range of depressive symptoms, including low mood and motivation, fatigue, concentration problems and, most concerning, suicidal thoughts.

RG: What do you think leads to depression in doctors?

Sen: There are a number of factors that are likely involved. In particular, the long hours, heavy workload, insufficient and inconsistent sleep and medical errors seem to be playing important roles.

RG: How does depression affect a doctor’s work?

Sen: There is growing evidence from both physicians and the general population that depression strongly affects work functioning. The evidence suggests that doctors who are depressed are substantially more likely to commit medical errors. In turn, medical errors increase the risk of depression in doctors.

RG: Are new doctors working today at a higher risk of depression than previous generations? If not, why?

Sen: The rate of depression appears slightly higher for the current generation of doctors. We do not know the factors behind this increase over time.

RG: What can be done? What should I as a patient do if I suspect that my doctor is depressed?

Sen: At a minimum, we should provide residents and training directors with evidence-based tools that have been shown to be effective in preventing the onset of depression and better access to treatment after depression has developed. To make a more dramatic impact on depression, more systematic changes in the medical education system may be necessary.

Image courtesy of Eric.