Medical students fear becoming desensitized to dying patients

Becoming desensitized to the needs of dying patients is a major ethical concern among medical students, according to a new study conducted among third-year students at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

"Medical students are very aware they are undergoing a socialization process by which they become desensitized to the difficult things they see every day in the hospital. They realize this is necessary to control their emotions and focus on caring for the patients. On the other hand, they are very concerned about becoming insensitive to the spiritual, emotional and personal needs of the patient," lead author Mark Kuczewski, Ph.D., director of the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics, said in a statement.

For the study, a randomized group of third-year Loyola medical students two months into their clinical rotation were assigned to write an essay on their experiences as part of a team responsible for a dying patient. Students reflected on communication, personal/professional development, compassionate presence and patient care. A physician, a bioethicist and a chaplain analyzed the essays independently for recurring themes.

The analysis found that a common theme was the difficulty giving patients a death prognosis, both in the manner of delivery and who delivered it. "Students reported no matter how well a physician communicated a prognosis, families and individual family members absorbed and digested the information in their own manner and at their own pace," the study stated.

Students also expressed concern at the need to retain compassion for their patients while avoiding becoming emotionally compromised.

"Students were aware they must temper their emotions to be patient-centered. Still, many were upset that increasingly they were ceasing to react emotionally to situations as they typically would have prior to their clinical experiences," said Kuczewski.

Medical students also believe that a broader, more proactive approach to disease prevention is needed, according to the Huffington Post, aided by preventive measures such as the use of health coaches. Physician "burnout" due to the job's emotional toll is a major concern, leading some providers to implement holistic care to temper its effects, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
- here's the study
- read the statement
- check out the article