Dying, death, and medical education: Student voices

Cynthia M. Williams*, Cindy C. Wilson, Cara H. Olsen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

80 Scopus citations


Background: Medical schools require time for end-of-life topic. However, there is very little medical literature that directly addresses how medical students and residents are to behave, manage emotion, and confront their own grieving process when patients die. Objective: The purpose of this study was to understand how preclinical medical students describe feelings toward the death of a hypothetical patient in order to affect curricular change at our institution. Design: Qualitative methods using narrative analysis of student papers to identify patterns, core constructs, and themes related to student's projected feelings on patient death. Setting/subjects: Federal medical school with volunteer medical students from the class of 2005. Results: Two thirds of the students (108/162) volunteered to participate. Five significant themes emerged including: (1) affective responses (guilt, fear, blame, impotence), (2) personal experience with death, (3) survivorship and professionalism, (4) the meaning of death, and (5) the affects of religion and spirituality. Many feared facing families and responding to grief. An active belief in an afterlife was mentioned as a coping strategy by 40% of the students. Conclusions: End-of-life curriculum is more than teaching about the clinical care of the patient and support of family. These medical students overwhelmingly identified the need for coping strategies when confronting the dying patient. Teaching students these coping strategies should be an integral part of an end-of-life curriculum. Writing exercises cannot only help students recognize and reflect upon their emotions and feelings, but also allow educators a window into curricular elements that need to be added to death and dying education.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)372-381
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Palliative Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2005
Externally publishedYes


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