Trauma surgeons Joseph Sakran and Chethan Sathya discussed their experiences with firearm injuries and the public health approach to decrease firearm deaths during the AAMC Annual Meeting. Sakran, a gunshot survivor himself, launched a medical coalition in 2018 to frame gun deaths as a public health issue and to advocate for preventive measures similar to what was done in the case of car fatalities. Sathya called for distinct, tailored solutions for different types of gun deaths and emphasized the role of academic medicine in researching the true extent and causes of firearm injuries, screening patients for firearm risks, educating future healthcare providers about firearm safety, and advocating for effective public policies.
Trauma Surgeons Take on Firearm Deaths as a Public Health Issue
Joseph Sakran, a trauma surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, knows firsthand about gun violence. He was shot in the neck at age 17 and frequently treats patients with fatal gunshot wounds. Sakran, along with Chethan Sathya, director of the Center for Gun Violence Prevention at Northwell Health, emphasize the need for a public health approach to firearm deaths. They presented their strategies at the AAMC Annual Meeting in 2023.
The doctors call for a shift in perception of gun deaths, treating them as a public health disease rather than a criminal issue. Their goal isn’t to eliminate firearms, but to improve safety regulations, much like the implementation of seatbelts and airbags reduced car fatalities.
They highlighted alarming statistics: more than 48,000 firearm-related deaths annually in the US, a 20% increase in gun deaths since 2019, and gun injuries as the leading cause of death among children and teens. Sathya, a pediatric trauma surgeon, emphasizes the need for tailored solutions to address different types of gun deaths like suicides, homicides, and unintentional injuries.
Both doctors note the disproportionate impact of gun deaths on certain communities, especially Brown and Black communities in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, and Philadelphia. They believe academic medicine can help address these issues, but more research and funding are necessary.
Physicians can also take preventative measures by screening patients for firearm risks. At Northwell Health, every patient, regardless of their issue, is screened for safe gun storage and exposure to gun violence. Patients who raise concerns are then referred to the right resources and support, such as the Hospital-based Violence Intervention Programs (HVIPs).
Academic medicine can also educate future healthcare providers about the importance of discussing firearm safety with patients and provide training for these conversations. The doctors also encourage physicians to advocate for effective public policies, such as expanded background checks, child access prevention laws, and licensing and fingerprinting for firearm purchases.
Sakran and Sathya acknowledge the challenge of their mission, but they believe it’s crucial to break the cycle of violence. “If we don’t… we are going to continue to see the cycles of violence,” Sakran said. “We have the opportunity to push forward on this in a way that can be unprecedented.”