Background: The nature of medical care at the end of life and, in particular, the way in which caring is learned remain problematic for medical educators and the profession. Recent work has indicated that doctors learn to care, in an emotional and intimate way, from people who are dying.
Methods: This paper reports on the development of a programme designed for medical students in their first clinical year who spend time with a person who is dying and their family. The students are required to produce a portfolio assignment that includes a personal reflection of the experience. The findings from a phenomenological study undertaken using these personal reflections are reported. These reflections and comments are interpreted as being embedded in five key themes.
Results: The actual encounters differed from the medical students' anticipation of them. Students identified an emotional component to the experience; they explored their own and the patient's understandings of spirituality; they reflected on personal meanings of the encounter and they suggested ways in which they might learn to care more effectively for people who are dying.
Discussion: The way in which many of these students approach end-of-life care has been altered through a transformative educational experience that encouraged them to draw on their own experiences and skills. Their learning was facilitated by the writing of accounts and the discussion that each group held with teaching staff at the conclusion of the programme.