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On the emotional connection of medical specialists dealing with death and dying: a qualitative study of oncologists, surgeons, intensive care specialists and palliative medicine specialists
  1. Sofia Carolina Zambrano1,2,
  2. Anna Chur-Hansen1,2 and
  3. Brian Crawford3
  1. 1Discipline of Psychiatry, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia
  2. 2Discipline of Medicine, The University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia
  3. 3Mary Potter Hospice, Adelaide, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Sofia Carolina Zambrano, The University of Adelaide, School of Medicine, Discipline of Psychiatry, The University of Adelaide, Level 4, Eleanor Harrald Building, Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia; sofia.zambranoramos{at}adelaide.edu.au

Abstract

Objectives This paper reports on qualitative data exploring the experiences and coping mechanisms of medical specialists from the specialties of intensive care, surgery, oncology and palliative care, when dealing with death and dying and their emotional connection with dying patients in the context of a life-threatening illness.

Methods Thirty-three semi-structured individual interviews were analysed using thematic analysis.

Results One of the key themes of medical specialists' experiences with death and dying was their ambivalence about developing emotional connections with patients and families. Advantages of not engaging emotionally with patients were related to preserving objectivity in the decision making process, while a perceived disadvantage was the loss of the opportunity to engage in meaningful relationships that could positively influence patients, families and the medical specialist. Finding a balance in the face of ambivalence was a preferred approach and participants employed a variety of coping strategies.

Conclusions Participants took different positions about the emotional connection that should develop with their dying patients and their families. Although there was agreement about finding a balance between objectivity and connection, their strategies for achieving this seem to be subjective and prescribed by individual notions. By sharing perspectives and learning how other colleagues deal with similar issues, there is an opportunity for medical practitioners to develop a well-rounded approach to dealing with death and dying, which may enhance personal and professional relationships and may ultimately influence future generations of medical practitioners.

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Introduction

Medical practitioners require knowledge of palliative care,1 effective communication skills,1,,3 the ability to support the needs of patients with a life-threatening illness,3 ,4 and the ability to cope with the emotional demands of their profession.5 Additionally, medical practitioners serve as role models for junior doctors and medical students around issues related to death and dying.6 However, their responses to death and dying remain distinctly unexplored.

Medical practitioners are known to be at risk of ‘burnout’, ‘compassion fatigue’ and mental health issues from their contact with dying patients. The frequency of death in palliative medicine can lead to depression and grief.7 In oncology, intensive care and oncological surgery, medical practitioners may experience high levels of anxiety, burnout, stress and psychiatric morbidities.8 ,9 Beyond these negative effects, caring for patients at the end of life can be rewarding and conducive to personal growth.7 ,10 Discrepancies between the positive and negative impact of dealing with death and dying are associated with differences in coping strategies, the availability of support, and the quality of the relationships with patients and families.7 ,10 Studying medical specialists' experiences and attitudes towards death and dying patients is crucial for understanding their adjustment to their patients' death.

In order to gain an understanding of the experiences of medical specialists with death and dying, four medical specialties were selected. Oncology, intensive care and surgery (general, upper gastrointestinal, colo-rectal and breast surgeons) were chosen because of their involvement at different stages in the trajectory of illness experienced by patients with potentially fatal illnesses. Palliative medicine was chosen due to its philosophy of care and its acceptance of death as part of life.

The research questions addressed in the study were: (1) how do medical specialists experience the death and dying of their patients in the context of an advanced life threatening illness?; and (2) how do they cope with these experiences?

This paper reports on one particular aspect of the research findings, specifically: the experiences of medical specialists when developing an emotional connection with patients and how they cope with these experiences.

Methodology

Research perspective

A qualitative research approach was employed. Data were analysed thematically, a method that allows for the discovery of patterns in the data by organising and constantly comparing participants' experiences.11

Interviews

The University of Adelaide Human Research Ethics Committee approved the study (H-033-2010). The primary research approach consisted of semi-structured, in-depth interviews conducted by the first author, a female psychologist with professional and research experience in palliative care. The interviews explored medical specialists' experiences with patients within the context of a life-threatening illness, their coping mechanisms, perceived differences between specialties, and perceived preparation and training to deal with death and dying. Many of the interview questions were guided by the interviewee's responses. Interviews were also complemented by previous participants' responses, employing the process of constant comparison, which ensured that saturation of data was reached. Saturation refers to the point at which collected data are repetitive, are not conducive to new information, and do not complement previous understandings of participants' experiences.12,,14

The first author carried out all interviews between May and September 2010. Interviews were audiotaped with participants' consent and transcribed by the interviewer. Transcripts were de-identified and identifying information excluded. Measures of trustworthiness and rigour included the checking of resultant themes by the second author (ACH), a registered health psychologist. Participant validation of the transcripts was sought. Twenty-nine out of 33 participants requested their interview transcripts and six altered or edited some information. Changes were to identifying information, typographical errors and medical terminology and included minor edits that improved transcript readability. An audit trail was maintained throughout the research.

Data collection

Purposeful sampling was used to allow the selection of targeted informants. Participants were selected according to their specialty, gender, age range and years of practice. Eligible participants were practicing in the city of Adelaide at the time of the interview. One of the authors (GBC), a palliative medicine specialist, contacted potential participants via email. After participants had expressed interest, the first author, who was unknown to the them, contacted them to schedule a meeting.

Interviews lasted between 29 and 105 min, with an average length of 48 min.

In this study, different numbers of participants were required before saturation was reached in each of the specialties. This variation can be attributed to the dissimilarity in the experiences as narrated by some of the groups; the experiences of intensive care specialists were more uniform, while those of oncologists had more variations, which required more participants before a ‘mainstream storyline’ could be identified.12 Thus, the ‘negative case perspectives’ or exceptional accounts were also saturated.12

Participants

A total of 52 specialists were contacted. Thirty-seven (71%) agreed to participate in the study but only 33 were interviewed due to data saturation: 11 oncologists, nine surgeons, six intensive care specialists and seven palliative medicine specialists. Years of medical practice ranged from 6 to 45 years, with an average of 25 years. Ten participants were women and 23 were men. Twenty-four were working full-time.

Data analysis

Data were analysed using NVivo 8.15 Following the stages of thematic analysis,11 the first author familiarised herself with the data by reading and re-reading all transcripts, and referring to the audit trail. All authors compared their coding of one interview to verify coding agreement. The first author analysed all other interviews and emerging themes were discussed with all authors until the main themes were defined and redefined.

Interviews were initially coded line by line. Themes and patterns were identified by medical specialty and for the entire sample. Similarities and differences in experiences and coping strategies were identified. As part of the iterative process, key themes were contrasted and compared with each of the transcripts, ensuring an accurate representation and interpretation of participants' responses.

Results

A salient theme in the remarks and reflections of the participants about their experiences with dying patients and their families was their ambivalence towards developing an emotional connection. This theme was constant across all four medical specialties and influenced participants' experiences of the death of their patients.

This ambivalence was characterised by a dichotomy: ‘getting emotionally involved’ and ‘seeking emotional distance’. These subthemes were complemented by a third: ‘finding a balance’ in the emotional connection.

Getting emotionally involved

A perceived need of participants to establish an emotional connection with patients was an identified subtheme. Engaging emotionally with patients appeared to have positive psychological and professional effects for these medical specialists. Allowing the expression of emotions and personal content resulted in a more effective relationship; treatments were deemed to be more effective and participants were transparent about their emotions. Participants from all four specialties highlighted these positive effects, with the majority of palliative medicine specialists emphasising this view.

The need to engage emotionally with patients prevailed under specific circumstances. These circumstances can be categorised as: having known the patient for a considerable length of time, growing older, identifying at a personal level with the patient's demographics, and having life experiences which reminded them of their own vulnerability.

A long-term involvement with patients opened up the possibility of a relationship developing, where the interviewees felt more familiarity with patients. This was at times a two-way relationship where the specialist might disclose personal information.

Participants also described a tendency to become more emotionally involved as they grew older (table 1). However, some participants stated that their increased experience with death and dying had emotionally hardened them. Participants who were at the onset of their medical practice described a difficult transition, particularly in oncology, where they progressed from having sporadic contact with little personal involvement, to having more intense relationships with patients when they were specialists.

Table 1

Illustrative quotations for the subtheme: getting emotionally involved

Knowing the patient for an extended period of time was more common for oncologists and palliative medicine specialists. Intensive care specialists wondered whether they might become more emotionally involved than they reported if patients were to spend more time in the intensive care unit. Surgeons also reported more connection with patients for whom they cared for a longer time period. However, long-term relationships with dying patients occurred less often for surgeons than for oncologists.

While being emotionally open was a preferred approach, participants stated an underlying apprehension about ‘giving too much of themselves’. Some of the associated risks of being emotionally involved were finding it hard to continue to see a patient, abruptly withdrawing from already established connections with patients, getting too close, finding it hard to let go, and seeing patients as friends. For example, finding it hard to let go meant that a close relationship with patients could lead the medical specialist to make every effort to continue treatments and offer possibilities that might not be realistically possible (table 1). Likewise, the risk of seeing patients as friends represented a greater possibility of feeling the impact of a patient's death in a more personal way (table 1). These risks influence the preferences of specialists to ‘seek emotional distance’ or ‘to find a balance’.

Seeking emotional distance

As a subtheme, seeking emotional distance represented the other side of the dichotomy. It was described as the preference to remain emotionally uninvolved, particularly due to the specialists' view that an emotional connection with patients was problematic (table 2). Seeking emotional distance was characterised by abstaining from forming a relationship because of the need to remain objective, as well as the certainty that the relationship would end in the death of the patient. By maintaining emotional distance, specialists believed that they preserved professionalism and had the patient's interests at hand (table 2). A consideration was the personal impact of getting emotionally involved with a patient who was ultimately going to die. Participants felt emotionally unprepared to engage in relationships where the end result was the death of the patient (table 2).

Table 2

Illustrative quotations for the subtheme: seeking emotional distance

Practitioners who preferred an interaction devoid of emotional exchanges were mostly surgeons; only a few intensive care specialists and oncologists expressed this view. No palliative medicine specialists espoused this approach. Many of these participants had, at an earlier stage of their career, been emotionally involved with their patients, and based on those experiences, made the active decision to not get involved. Another supporting reason to seek emotional distance, particularly for surgeons, was the need to feel in control during the surgical procedure; inside the operating room their only concern was the physical body of the patient.

Seeking emotional distance was also related to a tendency to ignore any emotional impact on colleagues, and to not share their own vulnerability, provide debriefing opportunities for junior staff and medical students or discuss the emotional impact of specific death and dying situations. Many specialists expressed uncertainty about how other colleagues dealt with their emotional encounters with patients. The majority of surgeons reported not sharing their emotions with peers, while only some oncologists and fewer intensive care specialists described this approach. Additionally, palliative medicine and intensive care specialists recognised the advantage of teamwork for debriefing opportunities, whereas oncologists and surgeons had fewer opportunities for such meetings.

Despite upholding the view of distancing themselves emotionally from patients, when some of these participants reconsidered specific situations, they realised that they did establish a degree of emotional involvement with patients, but that it was not overtly demonstrated or discussed, and they thus continued to conceal their emotions (table 2). Furthermore, a selection of surgeons advocated for the need for emotional involvement with patients.

In many of the statements supporting the view of seeking emotional distance, participants used apologetic expressions to defend the validity of their approach, as if being uninvolved was the more difficult choice. The majority of palliative care specialists were accustomed to sharing the emotional impact of their work with their colleagues.

Finding a balance

The dichotomy between becoming emotionally involved or maintaining emotional distance, particularly after the risks of getting emotionally over-involved or being unprofessional were highlighted, motivated medical specialists to find alternatives to overcome these risks (table 3).

Table 3

Illustrative quotations for the subtheme: finding a balance

Coping strategies were practiced regardless of medical specialty, age or gender, and were described as: being aware of their level of emotional engagement, protecting themselves, putting emotions into perspective, respecting the emotions of the patient's family, overcoming their emotions without having time to grieve, and being busy.

Being aware of their level of emotional engagement meant that a conscious assessment of their emotional response would lead participants to recognise the extent of their involvement. They might rethink their decisions, sometimes with peers, to ensure that decisions were made in the best interests of the patient and not for themselves. This mechanism was explained in terms of maintaining objectivity (table 3).

Participants who resorted to protecting themselves frequently checked for the effects of over-involvement on their well-being, to ensure their ability to continue to work with emotionally demanding cases.

Other strategies for finding a balance were focused on regulating the intensity of the emotions and the length of the emotional response. For example, ‘putting emotions into perspective’ meant that responding with emotions was appropriate due to the emotional nature of working with dying patients, but that the response had to be short-lived. The emotional involvement was limited to the situation as it was happening but was manageable afterwards (table 3).

Similarly, respecting the emotions of the patient's family was a mechanism for participants to measure the intensity of their own response in order not to override the family's and the patient's own emotions, or put the grieving family in the difficult position of consoling the doctor (table 3).

Likewise, participants overcame their emotions without having time to grieve. They expressed that any reaction had to stop as they left the patient's room or after a consultation. This was to ensure that they were able to continue to work without their reaction influencing the next patient's care.

Lastly, participants discussed a preference for being busy. Engaging in different daily activities allowed them to forget about particular patients. However, in their personal time when sleeping or being at home or with friends, these cases could come to mind, particularly if there were some unresolved issues or emotions.

‘Overcoming their emotions’ and ‘being busy’ sometimes meant that the emotional response might be considered later in private. This approach appeared to be problematic, as most participants did not appear to have allocated time for this reflection, except palliative medicine specialists who reported having periodic peer review or having sought informal outlets.

By making use of such strategies, participants felt in control of their emotions in order to not impair their decision-making or transgress their professional philosophy.

In general, participants expressed uncertainty about deciding which approach, between being emotionally distant or being emotionally engaged, was best for their professional relationship with patients, and highlighted their ignorance of their colleagues' practices.

Discussion

This study sought to understand the experiences and coping mechanisms of medical specialists when developing an emotional connection with dying patients. Participants' responses were characterised by ambivalence between developing an emotional connection and seeking emotional distance. At the core of the ambivalence was the preference for an approach where they could find a balance in their emotional exchanges with patients.

To find balance, participants reported coping mechanisms, such as the preference to move on without having time to grieve, or being busy, which may have detrimental effects on physicians' psychological well-being by suppressing emotional responses.16 ,17 Palliative medicine specialists have identified these same circumstances as stressors,7 and oncologists report that the lack of time to grieve after a patient's death can act as a work-related stressor.18 Alternatives for participants to find a balance, such as putting the emotional reaction into perspective, and experiencing emotions privately, may reaffirm the emotional nature of working with dying patients.

Despite the expectation that medical practitioners and trainees will learn to deal with the challenges of caring for the dying, difficulties are continuously faced. Medical students' first experiences with death, often with studies on anatomy, involve learning to be emotionally distant,19 and their experiences with the dying are characterised by a similar tension between emotional connection and detachment.20 This finding has been replicated in studies of medical residents21 and oncologists.22

There is evidence of a positive correlation between years of medical practice and reduced emotional connection with dying patients,23 which contradicts our findings. Although a few participants expressed that over time they have become emotionally hardened to death, most participants stated that with increased years of clinical practice they were more likely to identify with patients and to become more emotionally involved. This has implications for patient care, medical specialists' well-being and medical education.

First, those doctors who felt over-involved expressed a need to withdraw from patients' care and found it hard to discuss changes in the focus of care. This may support reported findings where medical practitioners fail to have timely discussions about end of life with their patients, which can lead to poor end-of-life care.24

Second, medical specialists who were unable to find a resolution to the conflict between emotional connection and detachment may face constant stress, potentially leading to burnout, compassion fatigue, mental health issues, risk behaviours and early retirement.7,,9

Third, more senior medical practitioners are frequently seen as role models.16 If senior clinicians are unprepared to reflect on their practice and share their emotional responses, junior medical specialists and those still in training may not learn these skills, thus perpetuating withdrawal from patients as an appropriate coping mechanism.

In order for practice to evolve, an approach from the top is required. Medical training still has a strong apprenticeship model with students learning from senior medical practitioners via the ‘hidden curriculum’.25 ,26 It is unlikely that change will occur unless more senior medical practitioners' behaviours and practices are addressed.

A possible intervention might be to encourage older generations of medical practitioners to discover the positive effects of recognising the emotional nature of their work, for example, through learning strategies such as reflective practice, self-awareness, self-control and situational awareness.7 ,27 This may lead to more supportive relationships, and in turn, to more satisfactory relationships with patients and may have an impact on patient care; palliative medicine works under this model.28 Nevertheless, such a recommendation needs careful implementation given that practitioners may face difficulties after establishing emotional connections with patients. The participants in this study who withdrew from the care of the patient demonstrated this difficulty. Therefore, rather than just emphasising the need for a connection with their own emotions, medical practitioners need to explore alternatives and styles where neither their well-being nor the patients' is compromised. Clinical or professional supervision may facilitate this process.29 ,30

The differences between specialties show some disparity in reactions. As reported by others, oncologists seemed to be more affected when establishing emotional relationships.17 ,18 ,22 ,31 This research shows that many practitioners from other specialties also experience these dilemmas. Recognising that self-identification plays a key role highlights the fact that the vulnerable practitioners are those dealing with patients at the end of life. Although surgery has been described as a specialty that favours a ‘culture of bravado’,32 some of the surgeons interviewed stated their preference for care that was less emotionally distant, beyond the traditional view of emotions as inhibitors of objectivity.

Despite the burden of dealing with death and dying, some participants clearly preferred to deal with this in isolation. Many practitioners stated unfamiliarity with their colleagues' approaches, as well as the extent to which they should discuss emotional issues unless their colleagues were visibly upset. These specialists did not appear to seek opportunities, or have safe arenas, to discuss their emotions. Specialists are faced with many uncertainties in their job; relying on colleagues may provide more certainty, at least in recognising how other peers might approach a similar situation. This individualistic posture was more common in surgery and oncology, whereas intensive care and palliative medicine specialists seemed to rely on their teams and find support in them. Additionally, the role of spirituality in emotional connection was not mentioned by the participants in this study, but has been flagged in other research.33 ,34

A possible limitation of this study is that the researcher who invited potential participants was known to many of them. Medical specialists may have felt obliged to participate. However, some did choose not to participate. The sample of 33 medical specialists from a city in Australia may seem too small to extrapolate to other contexts. Despite this, the results are consistent with previous research in the area. The study was not triangulated; the patients and family members of these medical practitioners were not interviewed. The patients and families may have different perspectives regarding their doctors' emotional reactions and behaviours, which cannot be ascertained from the data collected for this research.

The findings presented in this paper further contribute to the understanding of medical specialists' adjustment to the death and dying of their patients. The depth of the data and the perspectives of the four different medical specialties involved in this study provide a broader and more inclusive assessment of the impact of death and dying on medical specialists. Furthermore, these findings could be explored in larger samples and in other medical specialties. Additionally, the qualitative nature of the study and the mechanisms employed to preserve rigour contribute to the resonance and transferability of the findings of this study to other contexts.

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank the participants for their willingness to participate in the interviews and for sharing their experiences.

References

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Footnotes

  • Funding No specific funding was provided for this study. However, for the duration her PhD, the first author was funded through an ASI Scholarship (Adelaide Scholarships International) from the University of Adelaide.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval The University of Adelaide Human Ethics Committee approved this study (H-033-2010).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data sharing statement Data from this research cannot be made available due to confidentiality restrictions.