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Top GP issues mental health warning as 400 doctors die by suicide

Professor Clare Gerada has called on the Government to improve support available to doctors, amid data showing over 400 doctors died by suicide in just four years.

According to the BBC, the leader of the national GP mental health support service believes that the rate of suicide within the medical profession may be rising, and she called for the NHS Practitioner Health Programme (PHP) to be expanded to help more people.

The Victoria Derbyshire programme, due to air this morning, will focus on Office for National Statistics data showing that between 2011 and 2015, 430 doctors died by suicide.

Professor Gerada warned that doctors, especially female doctors, are at a higher risk of suicide than the rest of the population, and she linked this in part to the pressure related to receiving patient complaints.

Former RCGP chair Professor Gerada is medical director of PHP, which has offered mental health support to doctors since 2008. But she told the BBC that the programme should be expanded, as currently only London-based practitioners can anonymously self-refer to the service.

PHP is also the provider of the more far-ranging GP mental health service, which was launched in January 2017, and to which GPs from all over the country are free to self refer, anonymously and free of charge.

According to NHS England, some 1,500 GPs have now gone through the programme, but Professor Gerada will say on the BBC programme that doctors with mental health problems remain ‘the last taboo in the NHS’.

She will say: ‘Doctors are at an incredibly high risk for mental illness. Female doctors have up to four times the risk of suicide in comparison to people in the [general] population.’

She will add that of the 5,000 doctors the service has seen over the last decade over two-thirds were women, with the average age dropping from 51.6 years to 38.9 over the course of 10 years.

Complaints from the public have the biggest impact on doctor mental health, Dr Gerada will add, as they can ‘shatter their sense of self’.

In 2015, it was revealed that 13 doctors had died while under investigation by the GMC.

Since then, the doctors’ regulator has moved to improve its process, and it revealed in May this year that it had since halted seven fitness-to-practise investigations to spare doctors with mental health concerns.

The GMC’s assistant director of fitness to practice Anna Rowland said: ‘We’re committed to continuing this work, and we’re also keen to influence the way wellbeing is approached by other healthcare leaders through independent research… Health organisations must come together to tackle these important issues.’

Asked about her comments to the BBC, Professor Gerada told Pulse: ‘I am not sure we know whether the rate of suicides is increasing. We do know that the rate of mental illness is – which is of course a risk for suicide.

‘I think PHP should expand across England for all doctors, not just GPs. Other doctors are in desperate straights and have very poor access to effective care.’

An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘We launched the NHS GP Health service in 2017, a world-first, nationally funded confidential service which specialises in supporting GPs and trainee GPs experiencing mental ill health and which has already helped more than 1,500 GPs.

‘NHS Trusts and clinical commissioning groups may offer additional support for professionals in their area, for example CCGs in London have commissioned the NHS practitioner health programme for their staff.’

The state of GP mental health

The news comes after a recent survey revealed that two in five GPs have experienced mental health problems, including conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The launch of the GP mental health service followed lobbying from the profession – and Pulse’s Battling Burnout campaign – for a comprehensive support service for GPs struggling with mental health concerns related to stress and burnout.

The RCGP reported this year that one in four GPs in the UK’s devolved nations are so stressed that they feel unable to cope at least once a week. 

And last year Pulse revealed that one in nine GPs has turned to alcohol because of work pressures, while 6% have turned to prescription drugs.


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