Here's why an ER doctor looks at Facebook before notifying family of a patient's death

Caregiver end of life care nursing home palliative care
Checking a Facebook profile gives an ER doctor a glimpse into a deceased patient's life, says Louis M. Profeta, M.D. (Getty/KatarzynaBialasiewicz)

There’s a reason why an emergency room doctor says he looks at a dead patient’s Facebook profile before he notifies family members of their death.

Checking that Facebook page humanizes what otherwise might just be a dead body, writes Louis M. Profeta, M.D., an emergency physician at St. Vincent Emergency Physicians in Indianapolis, in a LinkedIn post.

The post, titled “I’ll Look at Your Facebook Profile Before I Tell Your Mother You’re Dead,” resonated with healthcare professionals, parents and others. It has over 6,000 likes and 757 comments.

Profeta describes the agony of having to tell parents that their child is dead and the anger he often feels over a needless death because a patient was texting instead of watching the road or tried drugs at a campus party.

“It kind of keeps me human. You see, I’m about to change their lives—your mom and dad, that is. In about five minutes, they will never be the same, they will never be happy again,” he writes.

“Right now, to be honest, you’re just a nameless dead body that feels like a wet bag of newspapers that we have been pounding on, sticking IV lines and tubes and needles in, trying desperately to save you. There’s no motion, no life, nothing to tell me you once had dreams or aspirations. I owe it to them to learn just a bit about you before I go in,” Profeta writes.

Pulling out his phone and checking a Facebook profile lets him see the person, he says.

“I see your smile, how it should be, the color of eyes when they are filled with life, your time on the beach, blowing out candles, Christmas at Grandma’s; oh, you have a Maltese, too. I see that. I see you standing with your mom and dad in front of the sign to your college. Good, I’ll know exactly who they are when I walk into the room. It makes it that much easier for me, one less question I need to ask,” he writes.

Louis M. Profeta
Louis M. Profeta, M.D. (LinkedIn)

Profeta, who is also a public speaker and author, touched many people with his post.

“I am the parent who lost their precious child,” wrote one mother in response to the LinkedIn post. “Never lose your empathy.”

“As medical professionals, we get so used to people dying around us it is easy to forget that these patients had dreams and aspirations that they will not get to experience,” commented a registered nurse. “…It is a good reminder for us to consider the patient's life and family's feelings when breaking bad news.”