ER Workers Often Fail to Ask Suicidal Patients About Access to Guns

Study suggests health providers are missing opportunity to prevent future tragedies

WEDNESDAY, April 3, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Many doctors and nurses in U.S. emergency rooms don't ask suicidal patients if they have access to guns, even though guns are used in more than half of all suicides in the country.

That's the finding of researchers who surveyed 631 ER doctors and nurses in eight hospitals.

"In our study, less than half of emergency room medical providers believe most or all suicides are preventable and many rarely ask about the availability of firearms," lead author Dr. Marian Betz, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said in a university news release. "There is a great opportunity to save lives here that many are not taking advantage of."

She and her colleagues found that 44 percent of doctors and 67 percent of nurses believed that most or all people who commit suicide by gun would find another way to kill themselves if the gun was not available to them.

The study, published in the March issue of the journal Depression and Anxiety, also found that 49 percent of doctors and 72 percent of nurses said they "hardly ever" tell suicidal patients or their families to remove or lock up guns at home.

The percentage of doctors and nurses who "almost always" asked patients about their access to guns varied depending on the situation:

  • 64 percent said they would almost always ask if the patient had an actual plan to commit suicide with a gun.
  • 22 percent said they would ask if the patient was suicidal but had no suicide plan.
  • 21 percent said they would ask if the patient had a suicide plan not involving a firearm.
  • 16 percent said they would ask if the patient had been suicidal in past month but was not today.
  • 9 percent said they would ask if the patient had overdosed but was no longer suicidal.

In 2010, 38,000 people committed suicide in the United States and another 465,000 were treated in ERs for self-inflicted injuries, according to the release. In the year before they died, 40 percent of people who killed themselves visited an ER at least once.

"This is an opportunity for intervention but very often [doctors and nurses] don't know how to react or they think someone else should ask about firearms," said Betz, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the CU School of Medicine. "Some have an aversion to getting into an area so fraught with politics. This is not an issue of gun control; it's a safety issue for patients in crisis."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about preventing suicide ( ).

SOURCE: University of Colorado, news release, April 1, 2013