Thursday 13 December 2018

Doctors struggle to assess suicidal patients, new study reveals

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Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Three-quarters of GPs say they have suffered a patient suicide - but most are not prepared to assess the risk of someone taking their own life, a new study reveals.

The study shows the hidden toll that such a tragedy can take on doctors. The majority of the family doctors experienced sadness, upset, a feeling of professional inadequacy and a dent in confidence.

Some GPs were unable to sleep properly for months, and others pointed to the cuts in fees that have reduced the time they can spend with patients.

The survey, carried out by the HSE's National Office for Suicide Prevention and Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP), said "time pressures, inadequacy of services and lack of support for GPs" are among the obstacles doctors are facing in the care of suicidal patients.

However, a patient suicide also had the effect of doctors becoming more vigilant when dealing with patients.

The findings disclose how family doctors are struggling to deal with vulnerable patients without back-up services or, in many cases, training. There was a "non-compassionate response in A&E" and difficulty getting an appointments with a psychologist for patients who could not afford to pay.


Only a third of GPs said their practice had a personal liaison with psychiatric services. They faced gaps in services for children and adolescents, as well as in access to crisis counselling.

Most GPs had also not undertaken any previous suicide prevention training, but those who had were more confident in dealing with patient needs.

Dr Justin Brophy, the HSE's clinical adviser on suicide prevention, said: "GPs are often the first health professional contact for individuals who are experiencing distress or suicidal thoughts. Suicide prevention in primary care is a key, but very challenging, area for GPs.

"This research suggests GPs are open to and would benefit from additional training on the recognition and management of suicide risk. It also emphasises that while training is important, improved connections with and access to mental health services are also essential in order to facilitate GPs to manage patients' suicidal behaviour."

Dr Brian Osborne, of the ICGP, said the curriculum for GP trainees includes teaching on how to conduct suicide risk assessment. There is also an e-learning module for GPs on suicide prevention.

Irish Independent

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