Doctors don't receive enough training or advice on coping with their grief, a recent study found. The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, compiled interviews from oncologists of all levels and found that grief over losing patients is almost never discussed - or is frowned upon.
"Some physicians feel they need to have an emotional detachment in order to deal with death," says Cherie McCormick, Passages Hospice Bereavement Coordinator.
The study, titled "Nature and Impact of Grief Over Patient Loss on Oncologists' Personal and Professional Lives" found that few physicians receive education on dealing with grief and feelings of loss while in medical school. Study results show that when physicians, particularly those in high-loss fields like oncology and hospice, don't find healthy ways to express their grief, they can become distracted, irritable and burned out.
More frightening is the tendency for physicians to over- or under-treat their other patients as a result of unresolved grief over a death, according to the study. The study also found that when a patient dies, the physician might be more likely to recommend aggressive treatment like chemotherapy when palliative or hospice care might be more appropriate.
Some physicians report "pulling away" emotionally from patients as they near death - the time when most patients need their doctor most, the study authors said. Grief is a normal, natural reaction to death, and physicians need to be able to experience and express it in a healthy way.
"Acknowledging that physicians grieve and may require supportive services is the first step in the right direction," McCormick says.
Passages Hospice makes resources available for its physicians, who are encouraged to openly express their grief over losing patients and any challenges they face in the day-to-day care of hospice patients.
It's not fair to expect doctors not to grieve, or to distance themselves from what is a normal process, McCormick says. She recommends educating physicians about grief in medical school, and adjusting company procedures to encourage the open, healthy expression of grief.
The study, "Nature and Impact of Grief Over Patient Loss on Oncologists' Personal and Professional Lives" can be accessed at http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1160665.