Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Medical students writing on death, dying and palliative care: a qualitative analysis of reflective essays
  1. Jason W Boland1,
  2. Lisa Dikomitis2 and
  3. Amy Gadoud3
  1. 1Hull York Medical School, University of Hull, Hull, UK
  2. 2School of Medicine and RI Primary Care & Health Sciences, Keele University, Keele, UK
  3. 3International Observatory on End of Life Care, Division of Health Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Jason W Boland, Senior Clinical Lecturer and Honorary Consultant in Palliative Medicine, Hull York Medical School, University of Hull, Yorkshire HU6 7RX, UK; jason.boland{at}


Background Medical students and doctors are becoming better prepared to care for patients with palliative care needs and support patients at the end of life. This preparation needs to start at medical school.

Objective To assess how medical students learn about death, dying and palliative care during a clinical placement using reflective essays and to provide insights to improve medical education about end-of-life care and/or palliative care.

Methods Qualitative study in which all reflective essays written by third-year medical students in 1 year from a UK medical school were searched electronically for those that included ‘death’, ‘dying’ and ‘palliative care’. The anonymised data were managed using QSR NVivo 10 software, and a systematic analysis was conducted in three distinct phases: (1) open coding; (2) axial coding and (3) selective coding. Ethical approval was received.

Results 54 essays met the inclusion criteria from 241 essays screened for the terms ‘death’, ‘dying’ or ‘palliative’; 22 students gave consent for participation and their 24 essays were included. Saturation of themes was reached. Three overarching themes were identified: emotions, empathy and experiential and reflective learning. Students emphasised trying to develop a balance between showing empathy and their emotional state. Students learnt a lot from clinical encounters and watching doctors manage difficult situations, as well as from their refection during and after the experience.

Conclusions Reflective essays give insights into the way students learn about death, dying and palliative care and how it affects them personally as well as the preparation that is needed to be better equipped to deal with these kinds of experiences. Analysis of the essays enabled the proposal of new strategies to help make them more effective learning tools and to optimise students’ learning from a palliative care attachment.

  • Medical students
  • education
  • reflection
  • death
  • palliative care
  • dying

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.


  • Competing interests None declared.

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