COMMENTARY

Why Don't the Doctors Attend the Funerals of Their Patients Who Die?

 

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Good morning, I'm Dr. George Lundberg, Editor-in-Chief of MedGenMed. Why don't the doctors attend the funerals of their patients who die?

"dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.[1]" That means you and me.

I am an anatomic and forensic pathologist. Thus, in the course of my career, I have been around a lot of dead people. But I never really liked death and dying. That makes me like most doctors, according to the brilliant new book called "Final Exam" by transplant surgeon Pauline Chen.[2]

Think about the last funeral you attended. Did you see the doctor of the deceased there, helping to comfort the surviving family and friends? At the last 3 family funerals I attended, I saw no other doctors.

I find little literature about doctors at funerals. Two articles in The New York Times,[3,4] and another in the Archives of Internal Medicine,[5] did corroborate the low attendance rate of physicians at the funerals of their patients and conjectured about why. My guess is that Sherwin Nuland was right when he wrote "of all the professions, medicine is one of the most likely to attract people with high personal anxieties about dying. We became doctors because our ability to cure gives us power over death of which we are so afraid.[6]" Chen may also be correct when she writes ". . .we may be a self-selected lot who eagerly suppress those fears as we adopt a professional ethos that embraces denial.[2]"

I hope the curriculum development folks in medical schools, residency programs, and CME activities consider the issue of doctors attending funerals when they do their educational needs assessments about the proper behavior of competent, caring physicians in death and dying. I think it matters, for families, society, and ourselves.

But until the fruits of any such programs are borne, the only funeral you can be sure your physician will attend will be that of his or her own.

That's my opinion. I'm Dr. George Lundberg, Editor-in-Chief of MedGenMed.

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