Academic emergency physicians' experiences with patient death

Acad Emerg Med. 2011 Mar;18(3):255-60. doi: 10.1111/j.1553-2712.2011.01004.x.


Objectives: There is a growing awareness of the effects of patient death on physician well-being, and the importance of cultural and educational changes to improve coping mechanisms. The objective of this study was to explore both the effects of patient death on academic emergency physicians (EPs) and the coping mechanisms they use to deal with these events.

Methods: Faculty at a convenience sample of four emergency medicine (EM) residency programs were questioned about their responses to patient death in a 15-question on-line survey. Descriptive analysis of the data was performed. Independent variables were analyzed for differences in complaints of physical symptoms or consideration of important life changes after patient death.

Results: Of 207 EPs surveyed, 145 (70%) responded. Patient death was experienced frequently, with 95 (66%) witnessing a death at least every month. No training on coping with patient death had occurred for 35 (24%); 93 (64%) had less than 6 hours of training. The most common coping mechanisms included talking with colleagues (113; 78%) or friends and family (100; 69%), as well as simply continuing to work (89; 61%). Postdeath debriefing occurred rarely or never for 93 (64%) of respondents. Most EPs had experienced physical responses to patient death, the most common being insomnia (54; 37%) and fatigue (21; 14%). Common emotional responses included sadness (112; 70%) and disappointment (55; 38%). No significant differences in response rates for physical symptoms or consideration of life changes were found for any of the variables.

Conclusions: Patient death was reported to lead to both physical and emotional symptoms in academic EPs. Postdeath debriefing appears to happen infrequently in teaching settings, and most respondents reported that they themselves received limited training in coping with patient death. Further study is needed to both identify coping mechanisms that are feasible and effective in emergency department settings and develop teaching strategies to incorporate this information into EM residency training.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Attitude to Death*
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Emergency Medicine* / education
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires