Background: Although there has been a dramatic increase in education about death and dying in medical school curricula, the physician's interaction with terminally ill patients and their families still causes concern. The purpose of our study was to determine the impact of the third-year clerkship on education of medical students about death and dying.
Methods: From August 1, 1988, to August 1, 1990, a questionnaire concerning the care of terminally ill patients was distributed to all students completing the third-year clinical clerkship at our medical school.
Results: One hundred and eighty questionnaires were distributed, of which 106 were returned, yielding a response rate of 59%. All students had cared for a terminally ill patient during their third year. Forty-four (41%) students responding had never been present when an attending physician talked with a dying patient, and 37 (35%) had never discussed with an attending physician how to deal with a terminally ill patient. During the surgical clerkship 77 (73%) students had never been present when a surgeon had to tell the family of a patient bad news after surgery, and 90 (85%) had never been present when an attending surgeon had informed a family that their relative had died. Despite the fact that the curriculum addresses the stages of death and dying, almost half of the students could not remember these. When they were discharging a terminally ill patient home, one third of students could not identify problems that would be encountered by the family in caring for the patient.
Conclusions: Fifty-seven (54%) felt that they were poorly equipped to deal with terminally ill patients on graduation from medical school, and 91% welcomed the opportunity to be educated in this area during the clinical years.