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Doctors, patients, guns, and suicide

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 10, 2013 09:35 AM

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In January, Leon Neyfakh explored the stark evidence showing that access to firearms by itself makes people more likely to kill themselves. "The central insight for public health researchers is that a lot of lives could be saved simply by making sure that people don’t have access to an extremely lethal weapon during that high-risk period [when they are contemplating suicide]," Neyfakh wrote.

Given that, it might make sense that doctors and other health care providers would ask suicidal patients about guns, but a new study from the University of Colorado, Denver, shows that often they do not. The study, published in the March issue of Depression and Anxiety, surveyed 631 emergency department doctors and nurses about how they talk to suicidal patients about guns. 64 percent said they would "almost always" ask about access to firearms if the patient had an actual plan to commit suicide with a gun. In other similar scenarios, though, health care providers said they were much less likely to inquire. 21 percent said they would ask if the patient were suicidal with a non-firearm plan; 16 percent would ask if the patient had been suicidal in the past month but was not at the time they saw him.

The right of doctors to ask patients about gun ownership has been challenged recently. In 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a law which prohibits doctors from bringing up gun ownership and safety with their patients (the bill, which came to be known as "Docs vs. Glocks," was ruled unconstitutional in federal district court and is now under appeal). The University of Colordo study shows, however, that the main reason many doctors and nurses don't ask about guns is that they don't think the answers matter. 44 percent of doctors and 67 percent of nurses surveyed said they believed most people who ended up committing suicide with a gun would have found another way to kill themselves had a gun been unavailable- which is not, in fact, what research shows to be true.

H/T Eureka Alert

Image detail courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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