Study busts a myth about doctors and dying

A new study debunks the idea that physicians, who may have a more realistic view of death and dying, use less aggressive healthcare at the end of life.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus found that the popular idea that doctors use fewer interventions at the end-of-life is not based in reality.

When the researchers compared healthcare use for almost 10,000 deceased doctors to a random sample of almost 200,000 non-physicians who died during the same time period, they found the physicians were more likely to use hospice care, spend more time in intensive care or cardiac care units and just as much time in hospitals in the last six months of life.

"The overall narrative that doctors die differently is false," the study's senior author Stacy Fischer, M.D., associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said in an announcement. "We found that doctors used more hospice care--about two days on average--but when you look at the length of stay in hospital in the last months of life, there is no difference between them and the rest of population."

Researchers conducted the study to see if the idea was true that doctors, with their knowledge of medical treatment and outcomes, were more likely to die at home with fewer end-of-life medical interventions. While doctors may express a desire for less-aggressive care at the end-of-life when surveyed, they are no less likely to use high intensity, hospital care at the end of their lives, the study found. In fact, they have higher rates of ICU use in the last six months of life.

Researchers said the findings may demonstrate a generational difference. The average age of the physicians in the study was 83, so that most would have trained and practiced medicine at a time before hospice or palliative care had become standard.Or physicians may not be immune to those fears of dying as the rest of humanity, study co-author Daniel Matlock, M.D., an assistant professor at the university, said in the announcement.

To learn more:
- read the study (pdf.)
- find the study announcement