Objective: Older adults have the highest rate of suicide of any age group, and reducing the number of late-life suicides has become a national priority. The objective of this study was to determine if an age bias exists among primary care physicians when they contemplate treating suicidal patients.
Design: Primary care providers were mailed one of two case vignettes of a suicidal, depressed patient. The only difference between the two vignettes was the age of the patient (38 or 78 years old) and employment status (employed vs retired as a factory worker). A questionnaire was included to determine provider recognition of suicidal ideation, and a scale was designed to detect willingness to treat the vignette patient.
Setting/participants: Physicians were selected randomly from the University of California, San Francisco physician roster and invited to participate in the study. A total of 342 physicians (63% response rate), including specialists, responded to the mailings. For this study, the responses of 215 primary care physicians were analyzed.
Intervention: The randomly assigned experimental group received a vignette of a geriatric, retired patient who was depressed and suicidal (n = 100 participants). The control group received an identical but younger, employed patient (n = 115 participants).
Measurements: A 21-item Suicidal Patient Treatment Scale measured willingness to treat the suicidal patient.
Results: The physicians in this study recognized depression and suicidal risk in both the adult and the geriatric vignette, but they reported less willingness to treat the older suicidal patient compared with the younger patient. The physicians were more likely to feel that suicidal ideation on the part of the older patient was rational and normal. They were less willing to use therapeutic strategies to help the older patient, and they were not optimistic that psychiatrists or psychologists could help the suicidal patient.
Conclusions: This study suggests that primary care physicians are capable of recognizing suicidal ideation but are less willing to treat it if the patient is older and retired. Future research needs to determine etiologic factors for this age bias.