Physicians in Training May Be at High Risk for Depression

A Brigham and Women's study found that nearly 30 percent of resident physicians screen positive for depression.

Medical resident

Doctor photo via Shutterstock

It’s no secret that being a physician in training, contending with irregular hours, intense stress levels, and sudden exposure to illness and death, is not an easy gig. Now, a study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) has found that 28.8 percent of resident physicians screened positive for depression.

These findings, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medial Association, showed far higher rates of depression among residents than among of the general population, which has a depression incidence of about 6.7 percent. Researchers analyzed 54 studies, which cumulatively examined 17,560 physicians in training, to screen for common depression symptoms. Trainees tended to test positive across specialties and countries, suggesting that the root of the problem could indeed be within the residency programs.

Even worse? Trainee depression rates may be on the rise, an increase that co-author Srijan Sen called “surprising and important” in a statement. The increase is especially interesting in light of recent reforms enacted to boost well-being in residency programs, which have included efforts to boost diversity and cut-back on required hours and levels of student debt.

According to the BWH study, young adults who develop depression are at a higher risk of depressive episodes and other medical issues, like heart attacks and strokes, later in life. This link underscores the importance of mental health care for residents at a young age, especially since previous research has suggested links between physician depression and lower-quality patient care.

Corresponding author Douglas Mata, a resident physician at BWH, said in a statement that bringing down these high depression rates should be a high priority in graduate medical education:

“We hope that [residency programs] will focus attention on factors that may negatively affect the mental health of young doctors, with the goal of identifying strategies to prevent and treat depression among graduate medical trainees.”