May 7, 2019

Kaiser Permanente psychiatrist wins suicide prevention award

Dr. Greg Simon recognized for pioneering work in detecting suicide risk in primary care settings.

Greg Simon, MD, MPH, will receive the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — or “AFSP” — Research Award at its Lifesavers Gala 2019 on May 7 in New York. The AFSP will also honor 4 others, including Anderson Cooper of CNN and CBS News.

Dr. Simon is a psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Washington and a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute. A University of Washington research professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, he leads the national Mental Health Research Network.

“We want to prevent suicide, so we must keep getting better at predicting it,” Dr. Simon said. Fourteen in 100,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017. Rates have risen in recent years, especially in rural areas, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

“There’s a conspiracy of silence around suicidal thoughts, because it’s awkward to discuss,” Dr. Simon said. “So we’ve found that we have to incorporate talking about it into our standard care. Our suicide prevention work is a great example of how research and care keep influencing each other to improve our patients’ health. When research springs from clinicians’ and patients’ questions, ‘learning health systems’ can put results into practice much faster.”

Kaiser Permanente in Washington began routinely using a mental health questionnaire — a recognized hallmark of good care — in mental health and primary care. Now standard practice calls for Kaiser Permanente patients in Washington to be asked routinely to answer this questionnaire at least once a year during primary care visits, as well as at every visit for mental health concerns.

Kaiser Permanente has also implemented a standard process for questionnaire follow-up to help prevent patients from harming themselves, including personal safety plans, safe firearm storage, and disposing of extra medications. These best practices have since been adopted in other parts of the nation served by Kaiser Permanente, as well as by other health systems around the country.

Recently, Dr. Simon and his colleagues have used machine-learning models to develop and test a more sophisticated — and accurate — way to predict risk of suicide, by combining mental health questionnaire responses with information from electronic health records, including prior suicide attempts and diagnoses of mental health and substance use. Simon and colleagues are now conducting a large trial to test 2 different outreach programs to prevent suicide attempts in people who are at risk.

This work complements Kaiser Permanente’s research focused on reducing firearm-related injuries and deaths, as well as our ongoing efforts to emphasize the importance of mental health and wellness and its impact on total health — mind, body, and spirit. A research brief sums up Kaiser Permanente’s research on mental health.