Compassion Corner: Compassion Should be Reciprocal: The Rising Suicide Rate of Physicians and Nurses

Compassion [kuhmpash-uhn] noun
A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Compassion Corner is a series from Patient Worthy that will focus on the subject of compassion in the healthcare and rare disease space. In this series, we explore the role of compassion in this field and what it means for caregivers, patients, and others.



When we need medical care, we are fortunate if we have a physician who not only provides a proper diagnosis but also calms our anxieties by being supportive and compassionate.

We may not appreciate it during our doctor visits, but he or she is a human being with his or her own family burdens and responsibilities.

MedPageToday’s Kevin MD recently featured an article involving a San Diego University study conducted in February 2020. The study found that suicide rates among nurses from 2005 to 2016 were substantially higher than the female population in general. From the years 2017 through 2018, 729 nurses committed suicide.

A 2022 physician’s suicide report involving 13,000 physicians representing 29 specialties was published in Medscape. The survey found that one in ten physicians attempted or considered suicide in 2021.

As startling as these reports may be, they are overshadowed by the suicide of Dr. Lorna Breen, head of New York Presbyterian’s Emergency Department. Dr. Breen managed to work through the early days of the pandemic when staffing was scarce and patients were packed along the hospital’s hallways.

Dr. Breen’s dedication became too much of a burden and in April 2020 she became one of the many physician suicides attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her death has been a symbol of the burdens carried by healthcare workers.

Those burdens, such as confidentiality concerns and negative career consequences, have prevented many doctors from seeking help.

An editorial published in Cureus noted that suicidal thoughts among doctors (1 in 10) were almost double those of the public in general (7.2% vs 4%). Four percent of the doctors surveyed were reluctant to answer.

The doctors who preferred not to answer the question explained that they feared having to respond to licensing boards and that such answers would have a negative impact on their careers.

Our Heroes are Isolated

Doctors and nurses are often considered heroes but privately they feel isolated. Yet we are reminded that nurses and physicians are responsible for the care of thousands of patients during their lifetime.

Help appeared to be on the way. An award of $103 million was funded by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department over a three-year period to promote the mental health of the healthcare workforce.

However, only one percent of the 6000 hospitals in the country received funding. Another grant is hoped to follow, reaching a larger number of institutions.

The Pandemic Exposed Disparities

It is well known that the U.S. spends more than any country on health care. However, studies have indicated that 30% of this spending is considered waste.

In a Medscape 2023 Report on Physician Burnout and Depression, 9100 physicians were surveyed. 53% reported that they were experiencing burnout.

Apparently, nothing has changed in the last five years. The top three factors named as contributing to burnout were the number of hours worked, bureaucratic tasks, and lack of coworker respect.

Can the System Be Fixed?

 The Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation is working at the state level to improve access to mental health services and remove barriers that apply specifically to healthcare workers.

A National Plan outlining system changes has also been proposed by the National Academy of Medicine. The plan calls for collaborative efforts by the government, healthcare administrators, payers, and the industry to achieve the systems change.

Medical professionals are encouraged to contact state medical boards and advocate for change.

We are better served by healthcare workers who have compassion while being mindful that Dr. Breen’s suicide represents the burdens and stigma affecting these providers.

Rose Duesterwald

Rose Duesterwald

Rose became acquainted with Patient Worthy after her husband was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) six years ago. During this period of partial remission, Rose researched investigational drugs to be prepared in the event of a relapse. Her husband died February 12, 2021 with a rare and unexplained occurrence of liver cancer possibly unrelated to AML.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email