On reflection: doctors learning to care for people who are dying

Soc Sci Med. 2001 Jun;52(11):1719-27. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(00)00289-6.


Humane care is an essential component of the doctor's role at the end of life. Over the last 20 years, there has been a steady global increase in the extent and variety of medical teaching about the care of people who are dying. In some countries, palliative medicine is now recognised as a discrete medical specialty. Rightly, much emphasis has been placed on symptom management, communication skills and ethical issues. But rarely does the concept of care, or how doctors learn to care, emerge in the medical literature. The concept of "care" is usually defined as a professional behaviour: attending to a patient's needs. Yet, the concept of care also requires a professional commitment on a more holistic level. To care is to be receptive to and responsible for others. This is care motivated by true empathy: a concern for the patient's well-being that comes from a sensitive identification with the patient's situation. This paper reports some of the findings from an interpretive phenomenological study involving 10 doctors and their experiences of learning to care for people who were dying. The doctors came from differing medical disciplines and had varying levels of experience. During the interviews the doctors retrospectively identified "turning points" at which they first perceived some notion of what it means to care for someone who is dying. The doctors often used poignant language when recollecting the strong feelings associated with these critical incidents. They felt that their training had been inadequate in preparing them for such care. The article asks whether their medical education had adequately prepared these doctors for this key element of their work. It recommends ways in which practitioners may be better prepared to care for people who are dying.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Attitude to Death
  • Clinical Competence / standards*
  • Communication
  • Education, Medical, Graduate / standards*
  • Empathy
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Family Practice / education*
  • Female
  • Geriatrics / education*
  • Holistic Health
  • Humanism
  • Humans
  • Internal Medicine / education*
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Medical Staff / education*
  • Medical Staff / psychology*
  • Philosophy, Medical
  • Physician's Role*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Self-Assessment*
  • Socialization
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Terminal Care / organization & administration*
  • Terminal Care / psychology