Invoking death: How oncologists discuss a deadly outcome

Soc Sci Med. 2020 Feb:246:112672. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112672. Epub 2019 Nov 12.


Existing sociological research documents patient and physician reticence to discuss death in the context of a patient's end of life. This study offers a new approach to analyzing how death gets discussed in medical interaction. Using a corpus of 90 video-recorded oncology visits and conversation analytic (CA) methods, this analysis reveals that when existing parameters are expanded to look at mentions of death outside of the end-of-life context, physicians do discuss death with their patients. Specifically, the most frequent way physicians invoke death is in a persuasive context during treatment recommendation discussions. When patients demonstrate active or passive resistance to a recommendation, physicians invoke the possibility of the patient's death to push back against this resistance and lobby for treatment. Occasionally, physicians invoke death in instances where resistance is anticipated but never actualized. Similarly, death invocations function for treatment advocacy. Ultimately, this study concludes that physicians in these data invoke death to leverage their professional authority for particular treatment outcomes.

Keywords: Cancer; Conversation analysis; Decision-making; Doctor-patient interaction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Communication
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent*
  • Male
  • Medical Oncology
  • Oncologists*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Terminal Care