Shadowing a Doctor

September 14, 2016

Medical students chose a career in this field because of a burning desire to save lives. Ironically, death is a common occurrence in the medical field and grief and loss are sadly part of the job. No matter how expertly physicians perform their service, medical science cannot always prevent death. As a medical student, coming to terms with death can be daunting. But there are a few things you can do to make it a little easier.

Observe your senior colleagues

It’s inevitable that as a medical student, you will, at some stage of your training, experience the death of a patient. The only relief you are likely to feel is from knowing that you will not be responsible for relaying the terrible news to the grieving family. Having said that, observing your colleague as they inform and console the distraught family is still a critical learning point.

Pay close attention to how this is done. Make note of the timing of the information, the words used and the body language employed. Whether the physician has to deliver a poor prognosis or the fact that the individual has died, informing the relatives is never easy. As a medical student, you need to observe and learn as much as you can about the best ways to approach this very real situation.

Learn how to deliver the news yourself

Delivering such traumatic news to the family is hard. Here are some simple steps to help you.

  • Ask to speak to the relatives in private. Losing a loved one is a deeply private and intimate event. The corridor or out in the open ward is unacceptable.
  • Be compassionate and patient with your delivery. Take care with the words you choose to use, too. Avoid using medical terminology. At that moment, the family is far too emotional to come to terms with technical jargon.
  • Avoid revealing gruesome details. This is not the time or place to divulge such information. Invite them to ask questions and answer them honestly. Give the family as much time as they need. Be honest and clear when replying. Do not leave room for doubt or speculation.

Familiarise yourself with the different services available

While you are in training, make a point to understand the different services that you can employ to help your patient and their loved ones face imminent death. For example, there are several hospice and palliative care specialists working beside you. They have many resources available.

Chaplains, social workers and counsellors can be a source of tremendous support and strength in case of a sudden death. When informing a family of a death, you may want these professionals with you. It is also policy in some hospitals for all staff associated with a difficult or unexpected death to participate in debriefing sessions. Such practices allow physicians the opportunity to talk about their experiences and feelings.

One of the downsides of working in the medical field is realising that you cannot save all patients. Some patients will die while under your care and some deaths will get to you no matter how hard you try to stay objective about the fact. No amount of training or experience can protect you from this, especially when you consider that you entered the profession to save lives.

Feeling devastated at a patient’s death is perfectly normal, whether you are a medical student or an experienced physician. While it is important to learn how to hold it together, and remain professional when dealing with the family and other staff members, don’t be afraid to give yourself a few moments to work through your emotions. Just as there are services to support patients and their families, there are support services to help you, too.

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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.