"Face-to-face with It": medical students' narratives about their end-of-life education

Acad Med. 2002 Apr;77(4):271-7. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200204000-00003.


Medical schools have been slow to include meaningful end-of-life (EOL) educational experiences in their curricula. As an area of inquiry and focused clinical experience, death is "conspicuous" by its absence, reflecting a medical culture that defines death as failure. The author asked fourth-year medical students at one institution to describe their experiences with dying patients and their families, the skills and attitudes they brought to these encounters, the support they received from attendings and residents while caring for dying patients, and suggestions for the medical curriculum that would help prepare them for care of the dying. Using a qualitative method, she analyzed ten students' written narratives, which dealt with experiences during their third-year clerkships, and compared these reflections with the literature on EOL care in medical education. The themes that emerged provided four organizers for this essay: (1) students' worry and uncertainty about EOL care, (2) guidance and role modeling in EOL care, (3) preparation for EOL care, and (4) conclusions and recommendations for the medical curriculum. In general, students did not feel well prepared or supported as they cared for their first dying patients, including, for example, delivering a terminal prognosis or obtaining a DNR. However, while they did wish for more support and role modeling from residents and attendings, they generally believed that care of the dying can be learned only through direct clinical experience. These beliefs call into question curricular issues of placement of EOL inquiry--most often in the preclinical curriculum--and the teaching of its content, currently overwhelmingly by lectures. The author concludes with recommendations for thoughtful, integrative, interdisciplinary curriculum changes in EOL education.

MeSH terms

  • Anecdotes as Topic
  • Attitude to Death*
  • Communication
  • Curriculum*
  • Decision Making
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate*
  • Humans
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Professional-Family Relations
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Terminal Care / psychology*
  • Terminally Ill
  • United States