Original Article

Patients and Guns: Florida Physicians Are Not Asking

Authors: Melanie G. Hagen, MD, Babatunde Carew, BS, Marie Crandall, MD, MPH, Zareen Zaidi, MD, PhD

Abstract

Objectives: The number of deaths from gun violence continues to increase in the United States. Despite multiple studies demonstrating that counseling patients leads to safer gun storage, it is not routinely practiced by physicians. There are multiple barriers to discussing firearms with patients. A barrier in Florida, until recently, was a law preventing physicians from asking patients about firearms. The law was overturned in 2017; however, it is unclear whether physicians are aware of this decision. We undertook a survey to study University of Florida faculty physicians’ knowledge, attitudes, and practices related to discussing firearms safety.

Methods: The survey consisted of 15 questions related to firearms and counseling. Invitations to participate were e-mailed in 2018 to faculty in general internal medicine, emergency medicine, and surgery within our institution.

Results: The response rate was 50% (n = 71/142). The majority of faculty surveyed did not own a gun (56%). Ninety-one percent of faculty surveyed agreed that “gun violence is a public health issue” and 93% agreed that gun safety discussion with patients at risk for suicidal or violent behavior is important. More than half of the respondents (62%) believed they could effectively discuss firearms safety with patients; 73% strongly agreed or agreed that they would discuss gun safety with at-risk patients, whereas 27% were either neutral or disagreed. Fewer still (55%) feel comfortable initiating conversations, and only 5% of participants always talk to at-risk patients about gun safety. Twenty-four percent discussed gun safety most of the time, 30% discussed it sometimes, 32% rarely discussed it, and 9% never discussed it; 76% were aware of the 2017 court decision overturning the physician gag law in Florida. The most-often cited barriers to discussions included lack of time (36%), worry about negative reaction from patient (30%), worry about lack of support from administration (13%), and lack of knowledge (20%). Gun owners and nonowners differed significantly on only two survey items: having taken a firearms safety course (gun owners more likely, relative risk 1.63, 95% confidence interval 1.16–2.29, P = 0.001) and agreeing with gun violence being a public health issue (gun owners being less likely, relative risk 1.24, 95% confidence interval 1.03–1.49, P = 0.006).

Conclusions: Faculty miss opportunities to prevent gun violence despite acknowledging that it is important to do so. More than 40% of the physicians who were surveyed do not counsel at-risk patients about gun safety, citing a lack of knowledge, a persisting belief that asking patients about guns in Florida is illegal, worry about negative patient reactions, and time limitations. Inaction persists despite increased awareness and activism by physicians regarding gun violence. A wider availability of continuing medical education opportunities to learn about firearms counseling should be considered.

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