Patient funerals: Should docs make an appearance?

Whether to attend a patient’s funeral is a personal decision for doctors, and there isn’t a right or wrong answer, according to Australian researchers.

Given the dilemma doctors can face over the appropriateness of attending, researchers at the University of Adelaide in South Australia surveyed more than 430 doctors online and found that 57 percent of respondents had attended at least one funeral of a patient.

Whether doctors had attended a patient’s funeral differed greatly depending on their specialty, the study in the journal Death Studies found. For instance, 71 percent of general practitioners had attended patient funerals, compared to 67 percent of oncologists, 67 percent of psychiatrists, 63 percent of palliative medicine specialists, 52 percent of surgeons and 22 percent of intensive care specialists.

"Our survey was aimed at better understanding what motivates health professionals to attend their patients' funerals, what barriers they may experience in attending, and their attitudes towards the issue of funeral attendance," Sofia Zambrano, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors, said in an announcement.

The death of a patient, however, can be “a very emotional and isolating experience for physicians,” said co-author Greg Crawford, M.D., associate professor of palliative medicine in the university's school of medicine. Some doctors may see it as the ultimate failure, he added. Attending a patient’s funeral may have two benefits: helping doctors deal with their emotions and comforting the patient’s family, he said. It can give doctors closure and allow them to get a fuller picture of the patient and their life.

Doctors have differing views, with some doctors seeing it as unprofessional and others thinking their colleagues would disapprove. The study found woman doctors were more likely to attend a patient’s funeral than male doctors and were more open to crying and expressing grief, as well as talking about their attendance. Young male doctors were least likely to attend patients’ funerals.

Since attendance is a personal decision, the researchers did not take a stand on whether doctors should attend patient funerals. They did conclude there is a need for open discussions in medical education and professional development concerning death and the role of doctors after a patient dies.