Oncologists Grief at Patient Loss Affects Treatment

Can also affect relationships with other patients and spills over into their personal lives

THURSDAY, May 24 (HealthDay News) -- Oncologists grieve over dead and dying patients, and this grief can affect both their treatment of other patients and their personal lives, according to a research letter published online May 21 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Leeat Granek, Ph.D., from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and colleagues interviewed 20 oncologists at different stages of their careers regarding their grief over patient deaths and how this grief affected their professional and personal lives.

The researchers found that oncologists reported powerlessness, self-doubt, sadness, feelings of failure, and a sense of responsibility, which sometimes began before death, from having hard medical knowledge such as poor test results. One coping strategy and impact of patient loss was compartmentalization, involving the ability to separate feelings of grief from other aspects of their lives. The theme of balancing emotional boundaries between growing close enough to care for patients and remaining distant enough to avoid pain and loss was reported. Patient loss led to feelings of burnout and affected treatment decisions, relationships with other patients, and also spilled over into their personal lives. However, oncologists reported having a better perspective on life.

"Of greatest significance to our health care system is that some of the oncologists' reactions to grief reported in our study (e.g., altered treatment decisions, mental distraction, emotional and physical withdrawal from patients) suggest that the failure of oncologists to deal appropriately with grief from patient loss may negatively affect not only oncologists personally but also patients and their families," Granek and colleagues write.

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