Although many physicians fear death, my oncologist doesn’t. The relationship I have with him is one I would like with everyone in the medical community. “I have two goals,” he said when I recently was in his office to receive a hormone injection to control my prostate cancer. “The first is to keep you alive, and the second is to maintain your quality of life.”

Physicians Fear Death

I often hear complaints about physicians from people living with life-threatening illnesses. There are all the usual ones of limited time to discuss health issues, endless waits because of overbooking, and support staff who are less than compassionate. But they are minor compared to the pain patients experience because of a physician’s inability to talk about quality of life and end of life issues. Both of which reflect their fear of death.

“They should be able to talk to me about my death,” one client said to me. “After all, they’ll be involved in it.”

I think the criticism may be unfair. The assumption is they should fear death less than the general population since they confront it daily. But should we expect them to be less afraid than we are?

Training and Failure

Dealing with end of life issues is not a significant part of a physician’s training, and dealing with it on a daily basis doesn’t necessarily lead to becoming more comfortable with it. If it did, the person who spends hours each day watching television sitcoms should be able to write an award-winning show.

Besides the personal fear of death, death for many physicians is interpreted as a failure since their role is a healer. Often, this faulty equivalency—death and failure—can lead to needless and painful prolonging of life.

Until societal attitudes change and physician training improves, we shouldn’t expect our physicians—even the most competent ones—not to fear death and be willing to discuss end of life issues.

2 Responses

  1. Ken

    Stan, your message today points out clearly how very sorely lacking is the Medical Training of our doctors and their assistants. When I worked in a teaching hospital, the “students” got five hours worth of instruction on addictions! I witnessed too many students acting like “gods”, and I’ve had too many experiences myself of physicians acting as “gods”. There is nothing, as far as I know, in medical schools dealing with patient care, as in compassionate care. Nothing as far as I know at facing death and the death of their patients (inevitable). Pity for them as well as for us.

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