Prairie Doc: Health promotion and personal safety

By Debra Johnston, M.D.
Prairie Doc Perspectives

The annual wellness exam is one of my favorite things to do as a doctor. It's a chance to talk about one of my passions: health promotion.

As most patients expect, our health promotion discussion includes smoking cessation, diet, and exercise. Perhaps more surprising is our conversation regarding personal safety. We talk about sunscreen, seatbelts, helmets, distracted driving or driving under the influence. And I ask if their guns are locked up.

I grew up in Iowa and I live in South Dakota. Both are states where hunting and guns are such a part of the culture, we don’t think twice about people having guns in their homes. The same can be said about many states in our region.

So why do I ask if guns are locked up?

Guns are a popular target of thieves. Anyone can have a break in, and you don’t want to make it easy for the thieves to profit from the act, or worse still, hurt someone. More importantly, however, is the safety of people in the home.

Sometimes parents tell me confidently their guns are well hidden from their children. They usually reconsider when I ask, “Did you know where your parents hid the Christmas presents when you were young?”

Sometimes parents tell me their children have been taught not to touch guns. However, those same children, when asked at their well child visits, often tell me they would pick up an unattended gun to bring it to an adult. Research bears this out.

Protecting children in the home from unintentional injury is only part of the story. I also hope to prevent intentional injury. Although guns are used in only about five percent of suicide attempts, they are involved in more than half of suicide deaths. In fact, nationwide, over 50 percent of gun deaths are suicides.

The underlying causes for suicide are complex and many, but once a person decides to do it, there is often a very brief period before acting on that decision. For many individuals, if they are unable to carry out their plan in those first few minutes, or if that plan involves a less lethal means, the moment of crisis passes. People are far more likely to survive a suicide attempt that does not involve a gun, while more than 80 percent of people who attempt suicide using a gun die.

Keeping guns unloaded and locked up, keeping ammunition somewhere separate, removing the guns from the home if someone is struggling: these are actions that can save the life of someone you love. It could even be your life. This topic is indeed integral to health promotion.

Debra Johnston, M.D. is part of The Prairie Doc® team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota. Follow The Prairie Doc®…based on science, built on trust, at and on Facebook featuring On Call with the Prairie Doc® a medical Q&A show streaming live on Facebook most Thursdays at 7 p.m. Central.