Your voice: Dealing with the death of a patient

July 12, 2019

Readers react to recent articles.

An inevitable occurrence in any physician’s practice is the death of a patient. But in family medicine, deaths are an unfortunate part of the territory. They happen all the time.

I think an important question to ask yourself is: “How do I as a physician respond to the death of one of my patients?” It’s a pertinent question because you have become a valued, respected member, yet peripherally, of the family. You have taken care of most of the family for years delivering their babies, giving them shots, treating their strep throats, pneumonia, broken wrist, caring for Grandma’s fractured hip, and holding their hands through chemotherapy. Now one of them has passed on. How do you respond to the family’s grief? How do you express sympathy for their loss?

It’s possible you were there when your patient died, but if you weren’t, I think there are three ways you can show how much you share in their family’s loss. These are things I did while in practice and have continued to do after retirement.

One, call the family on the phone and personally express your condolences, answer any pressing questions, offer prayers if requested, and offer emotional and physical support.

Two, I no longer live where I practiced so each day I scan the obituaries of my old town’s newspaper for familiar names and make a point to send the family a hand-written note expressing my sympathy and sharing in their grief.

Three, if the deceased has a funeral calling, make a visit and speak to as many family members as possible. Attending the funeral is an even better gesture. I have never had a family react negatively to my presence, and most express sincere appreciation and introduce me to family members who live elsewhere.

Of course, each of us has his/her own way of expressing sympathy to grieving families. But I think calling, writing, or being there are important ways you can express your concern and help a family deal with the death of a loved one. Cynically, one might say I’m “grandstanding.” I completely disagree with that insinuation. Families hold their physician in high regard, and practicing the courtesies I mentioned are always met with thanks and endless praise.

Showing kindness and concern almost never has negative consequences. Giving of yourself can only help and is very much appreciated by those on the receiving end.

William M. Gilkison, MD
Cave Creek, Ariz.

Physicians should work fewer hours

Jenifer Frank, MD, in “How we can defeat burnout” (The Last Word, May 25, 2019, issue) mentions the main culprits behind burnout: long hours, poor remuneration, electronic heath records, EHR, quality metrics, and tort law.

Until we doctors can find the courage to unite and confront the many forces aligned against us (which may be many years from now, if ever), the best remedy for burnout is to simply work fewer hours.

Of course working fewer hours may be an economic impossibility for most. Putting APRNs and PAs into the health system may be the only solution.

Edward Volpintesta, MD
Bethel, Conn.

x