Condolence letters when patients die: Docs say it's a personal choice

For doctors, it's a personal choice whether they want to send a sympathy letter to the bereaved family of a patient who has died.

And doctors say it should stay that way, according to a new study from the United Kingdom published in ecancermedicalscience. A small survey of oncology and palliative care professionals found the majority believe that writing a condolence letter to the family of a deceased patient is an important part of cancer palliative care. But they don't want to see a policy put in place to require such a letter or have a standardized form for doing so.

"The doctors in our survey felt strongly about when and how they wished to express their condolences to bereaved relatives," Jessica Hayward, a medical student at the University of Leeds, who helped lead the study, said in an announcement. "Trying to make practice more uniform may be seen as a good thing, but this doesn't seem to be appropriate or feasible."

The researchers surveyed 47 oncologists and palliative care consultants in Yorkshire who completed an anonymous online survey. The majority (87 percent) said they send condolence letters, but only 49 percent said they do so often or always. However, most (77 percent) said they would not use a standard template letter and 72 percent were not jin favor of introducing policies to unify their practices around condolence letters.

The most common reasons physicians said they send a letter were when they know the patient or family well, as a means to help the family grieve, or as a chance to give the family the opportunity to talk or ask questions about their relative's death. "Condolence letters are a matter of professional discretion and judgment and should not become a 'policy'," one doctor wrote in response to the survey. Other doctors stressed that every letter should be personal.

A condolence note may also benefit the physician who writes it, especially in the case of a difficult death. Some physicians, who deal with life and death issues every day, turn to poetry and other creative writing to help them process their most difficult cases.

To learn more:
- read the study
- find the study announcement