Purpose: To understand how oncologists provide care at the end of life, the emotions they experience in the provision of this care, and how caring for dying patients may impact job satisfaction and burnout.
Participants and methods: A face-to-face survey and in-depth semistructured interview of 18 academic oncologists who were asked to describe the most recent inpatient death on the medical oncology service. Physicians were asked to describe the details of the patient death, their involvement with the care of the patient, the types and sequence of their emotional reactions, and their methods of coping. Grounded theory qualitative methods were utilized in the analysis of the transcripts.
Results: Physicians, who viewed their physician role as encompassing both biomedical and psychosocial aspects of care, reported a clear method of communication about end-of-life (EOL) care, and an ability to positively influence patient and family coping with and acceptance of the dying process. These physicians described communication as a process, made recommendations to the patient using an individualized approach, and viewed the provision of effective EOL care as very satisfying. In contrast, participants who described primarily a biomedical role reported a more distant relationship with the patient, a sense of failure at not being able to alter the course of the disease, and an absence of collegial support. In their descriptions of communication encounters with patients and families, these physicians did not seem to feel they could impact patients' coping with and acceptance of death and made few recommendations about EOL treatment options.
Conclusion: Physicians' who viewed EOL care as an important role described communicating with dying patients as a process and reported increased job satisfaction. Further research is necessary to determine if educational interventions to improve physician EOL communication skills could improve physician job satisfaction and decrease burnout.