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Doctors Often Fail to Spot Suicidal Patients
Date:9/24/2007

Actresses posing as depressed, distraught were seldom questioned, study found

MONDAY, Sept. 24 (HealthDay News) -- Pointing to a disconnect between doctors and some of their neediest patients, a new study suggests that large numbers of physicians fail to spot symptoms that raise suicide risk.

U.S. researchers recruited actresses to act as patients and visit physicians while showing signs of depression or a similar disorder.

Only 36 percent of the doctors asked the "patients" about suicidal thoughts, the team found.

"There is often a window of opportunity for doctors to screen for suicidality and intervene appropriately, but, as we found, they frequently miss this opportunity," said study lead author Dr. Mitchell Feldman, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco.

According to Feldman, an estimated 2 percent to 7 percent of patients who visit primary-care physicians are thinking about suicide. In fact, as many as 75 percent of people who commit suicide visited a primary-care provider in the 30 days before killing themselves, the research shows.

Still, patients at risk of suicide rarely mention the topic directly to physicians, leaving it up to doctors to figure out what's going on.

"Remarkably little is known about the factors that influence whether primary-care physicians broach the topic of suicide with their depressed patients," Feldman said.

In the new study, researchers recruited 152 physicians from northern California and Rochester, N.Y., to take part. All were told they would get unannounced visits by actors portraying patients who would tape-record their conversations.

A total of 18 actresses visited the doctors playing two types of patients -- a person with major depression or a person with an "adjustment disorder," a catch-all term encompassing a variety of mental problems. Some of the "patients" asked for medication.


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