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MANAGING STAFF

When a physician commits suicide

The death of a physician or staff member can be difficult for a practice. The loss has an emotional impact on the people who worked with the individual, and the person’s passing leaves an obvious void. It also results in numerous practical issues the office manager must address.

But a death by suicide takes loss to an entirely different level. And when a physician commits suicide, it’s fair to say the loss can rock a practice to its very core.

Background

Every year, approximately 400 physicians in the United States take their own lives, according to best estimates, although the number may actually be higher.

Dr. Pamela Wible, a family physician who writes and lectures on various health care topics, including physician suicide, shares her experience with trying to arrive at an accurate number, and the reasons behind it:

“During a recent conference, I asked a room full of physicians two questions: ‘How many doctors have lost a colleague to suicide?’ All hands shot up. ‘How many have considered suicide?’ Except for one woman, all hands remained up, including mine.”

Wible speculates on why physicians commit suicide. Among the many reasons she shares at her blog are:

  • A physician’s greatest joy is the patient relationship.
  • Assembly-line medicine undermines the patient-physician relationship.
  • Most doctors are burned out, overworked, or exhausted.
  • Many doctors spend little time with their families.
  • Workaholics are admired in medicine.
  • Medicine values competition over nurturing.
  • Many doctors function in survival mode.
  • Doctors are not supposed to make mistakes.

Previously, Medical Office Manager looked at physician stress and burnout and how the office manager can help alleviate it.

Aftermath

But once the situation has reached the point of no return, the office manager faces different challenges.

A physician’s death by suicide is apt to leave staff and coworkers feeling shocked and confused, along with a number of other emotions, which can include guilt. Patients, on the other hand, may experience feelings of abandonment and anger.

The office manager, while dealing with her or his own reaction, must address the way the physician’s death affects the practice.

So, how do you handle such a sensitive matter?

Support for staff

Value Options, a health improvement company specializing in mental and emotional wellbeing and recovery, recommends giving staff plenty of opportunity to vent their feelings.

The firm also recommends watching for posttraumatic symptoms among staff. This can manifest itself in various ways, including employees showing up late for work and/or workers seeming tired or forgetful.

A manager should expect a wide range of reactions from employees, including sadness and anger.

Individual staff members, especially those who worked closely with the deceased, may have a difficult time getting past the loss. Individual conversations and/or professional counseling may be necessary. If the entire staff seems to have difficulty coping, it might be appropriate to have a grief counselor speak to the group.

Keep in mind that the anniversary of the physician’s death, as well as events in which she or he played a major role, such as the holiday party or a special project that now reaches completion, may trigger emotions.

Sensitivity and understanding are essential, as grief and loss affect everyone differently. Remember, too, that there is no set timetable when it comes to business returning to normal.

Support for patients

That said, the office must continue to operate, as patients have needs that must get met.

Decisions must immediately be made regarding physician referrals, and how to notify patients.

Patients are likely to be upset about the loss of their physician. Once they learn the circumstances, they may also be angry. Your role as office manager is to defuse the anger as much as possible, while expressing sympathy for their loss and assuring them that the practice will do everything possible to make sure their medical needs are met.

Support for yourself

Needless to say, providing support for a grieving staff and patients who are feeling lost will require enormous strength on your part. In addition, you will be in unchartered waters when it comes to certain work matters.

Meanwhile, you will also be dealing with your own shock and grief, not to mention concerns about the practice and your ability to keep the office running smoothly.

As with the death of anyone close to you, and especially the death of someone by suicide, it’s important for you to acknowledge your emotions and take time to grieve and process the loss. While the inclination may be to do everything for everyone else, you don’t want to neglect your needs and your health. Don’t forget to take care of yourself so you can take care of the office during this difficult time.


Editor’s picks:

How to help your physicians cope with stress and burnout


Dealing with loss as a health care professional


How to help your physicians cope with stress and burnout


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