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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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.