The rigorous work schedule and pressure faced by U.S. doctors have them "stressed to the point of breaking" and struggling with the highest suicide rates among any profession in the U.S., Dr. Edward Ellison, executive medical director and chairman at the Southern California Permanente Medical Group, said Tuesday at CNBC's Healthy Returns conference in New York.
Studies estimate that a doctor dies by suicide every day in the United States, Ellison said. He said the health-care industry needs programs for physicians that teach self-care and provide emotional and spiritual support. He added that the medical profession needs to become more efficient for physicians, too.
"We need to shift our thinking and evolve our culture inside the medical profession and in society," Ellison said. "Doctors tend to be people who never give up until they do," he said.
Ellison cited data that says 44% of physicians display signs of "burnout," which is physical and emotional exhaustion that can lead to insomnia, lack of appetite and other mental health issues. He said a main reason health-care professionals begin to feel burnt out is they are often subjected to rigorous work schedules and forget about taking care of themselves.
Unaddressed mental conditions driven by workload, work inefficiency, lack of meaning in work and work-home problems are a main contributor to the high physician suicide rate, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Ellison said that though there have been major positive developments in the health-care industry, the improvements have had somewhat of a negative impact on doctors' schedules.
"At the same time, it's just created such an extraordinarily structured, regulated environment in which many, many tasks that used to be done by other members of the health care team fall to physicians," Ellison said. He added this leads to doctors working more hours but spending less time with patients.
Physician suicides are an "enormous problem" for the health-care industry, with doctors being much more likely to kill themselves than the general population. The suicide rate for male physicians is 1.41 times higher than the general male population and for female physicians is 2.27 times higher than the general female population.
Suicide rates aren't high only among practicing doctors. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for medical students. Medical students are three times more likely than their peers to kill themselves, according to the American Medical Student Association.
Suicide is typically caused by untreated or improperly treated depression or mental illness. Depression in the medical profession affects about 12% of men and 19.5% of women, and about 15% to 30% of all medical students have displayed symptoms of depression, studies show. One study said 23% of medical interns had suicidal thoughts, though that figure dropped by nearly half after they took a cognitive behavior therapy course.
That's why, Ellison said, fundamental changes are needed in the medical system, in both education and the profession, to reduce the stigma for seeking help and heighten mental health awareness.
Patients can also help doctors with small gestures, Ellison said.
"So the next time you see your doctor, look her or him in the eye and say, 'Thank you,'" Ellison said. "We need them, but they need us."