The findings are published in the September/October issue of the Annals of Family Medicine.
Doctors were more likely to pursue the prospect of suicide if the "patients" said they had major depression or asked for medication. Doctors who had personal experience with depression were three times more likely to look into suicide.
"Most physicians are not adequately trained to diagnose and treat mental and behavioral problems generally, and this problem is magnified with an issue like suicide that may evoke discomfort in some physicians who will then avoid the topic," Feldman said. "Some mistakenly believe that if they inquire about suicide, they will prompt the patient to consider it."
Feldman added: "I describe suicide as another of the Pandora's Box issues -- like domestic violence -- that doctors may avoid broaching for fear that once they bring it up, they will be unable to contain the patient's emotional responses. And, in addition, they will put themselves way behind schedule."
David Rudd, chair of the psychology department at Texas Tech University, agreed with Feldman. Rudd, who's familiar with the study findings, blamed physician inaction on inadequate training, a fear of making things worse, and "anxiety and apprehension about handling suicidal crises."
What to do? Feldman said doctors need better education about suicidal patients, and patients need to know more about depression and feel comfortable asking for help. "We found that patients who make requests get more thorough and appropriate care including more inquiries about suicide from their physician."
Rudd put it this way: "Physicians are the primary access point for the majority of distressed, suicidal patients. This is critical to saving lives."
Learn more about suicide from the U.S. National Institutes of Health'/>"/>
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