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OBJECTIVES: To examine patterns of cause specific mortality in NHS hospital consultants according to their specialty and to assess these in the context of potential occupational exposures. METHODS: A historical cohort assembled from Department of Health records with follow up through the NHS Central Register involving 18,358 male and 2168 female NHS hospital consultants employed in England and Wales between 1962 and 1979. Main outcome measures examined were cause specific mortality during 1962-92 in all consultants combined, and separately for 17 specialty groups, with age, sex, and calendar year adjusted standardised mortality ratios (SMRs) for comparison with national rates, and rate ratios (RRs) for comparison with rates in all consultants combined. RESULTS: The 2798 deaths at ages 25 to 74 reported during the 30 year study period were less than half the number expected on the basis of national rates (SMR 48, 95% confidence interval (95% CI) 46 to 49). Low mortality was evident for cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, other diseases related to smoking, and particularly for diabetes (SMR 14, 95% CI 6 to 29). Death rates from accidental poisoning were significantly raised among male consultants (SMR 227, 95% CI 135 to 359), the excess being most apparent in obstetricians and gynaecologists (SMR 934); almost all deaths from accidental poisoning involved prescription drugs. A significantly raised death rate from injury and poisoning among female consultants was due largely to a twofold excess of suicide (SMR 215, 95% CI 93 to 423), the rate for this cause being significantly raised in anaesthetists (SMR 405). Compared with all consultants, significantly raised mortality was found in psychiatrists for all causes combined (RR 1.12), ischaemic heart disease (RR 1.18), and injury and poisoning (RR 1.46); in anaesthetists for cirrhosis (RR 2.22); and in radiologists and radiotherapists for respiratory disease (RR 1.68). There were significant excesses of colon cancer in psychiatrists (RR 1.67, compared with all consultants) and ear, nose, and throat surgeons (RR 2.25); melanoma in anaesthetists (RR 3.33); bladder cancer in general surgeons (RR 2.40); and laryngeal cancer in ophthalmologists (RR 7.63). CONCLUSIONS: Lower rates of smoking will have contributed substantially to the low overall death rates found in consultants, but other beneficial health related behaviours, and better access to health care, may have also played a part. The increased risks of accidental poisoning in male consultants, and of suicide in female consultants are of concern, and better preventive measures are needed. The few significant excesses of specific cancers found in certain specialties have no obvious explanation other than chance. A significant excess mortality from cirrhosis in anaesthetists might reflect an occupational hazard and may warrant further investigation.