What to do when your patient dies

Over the years, many people have shared with me their disappointment at the lack of acknowledgment from their physician when their loved one died. Especially, when their loved one had been a long time patient of the physician. In fact, many people have shared that they switched physicians because of what they perceived as a slight.

When people go to a physician for many years, especially the family physician, it is not unusual to feel a real bond with that physician and staff. Think about it, medical people are involved in some of the most intimate times in a person’s life. They are there when babies are born, when your kids get raised, when loved ones are diagnosed with terrible illnesses and yes, when people die. So, it makes sense to me that when a patient dies, some acknowledgment should be made by the physician and or his or her staff to the family.

I also think hospitals should have protocols in place to acknowledge the death of patients in their facilities. Many hospitals send congratulations on the births that take place in their delivery units, why would you not note something on the opposite end of that spectrum.

At a time when health care seems less and less personal to patients some simple, but thoughtful gestures of concern and sympathy can let patients know that you really care about them and their families.

Here are some things a medical practice could consider:

  • Have a policy in place as to how you are going to acknowledge the death of one of your patients.
  • Sending a hand written note from the physician and staff would be greatly appreciated.
  • A token floral arrangement is another option.
  • Send a representative from your office to the calling at the funeral home.
  • Follow up with a phone call after a short period of time to the surviving family member if they are your patient.
  • Hospitals could send a personalized letter of condolence to the family. No generic form letters for this situation.

Reach out and let your patients know that you care. I guarantee they will appreciate it.

I have had several dogs over the past years and when any of them died we got a heartfelt sympathy note from our vet. I think people deserve the same from their physicians.

Karen Hickman is founder, Professional Courtesy and trains health care workers in professional courtesy essentials.  

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  • guest

    Speaking as a physician, pet owner and patient, on the one occasion that a vet’s practice sent a condolence note following the death of a pet, I found myself thinking “I wish you had put more energy into figuring out whether my child’s pet needed to be npo prior to the surgery you did, so that the pet had not died in surgery. Putting energy into a nice condolence note after the fact really doesn’t help us at all, or our dead pet.”

    Similarly, I would find it odd and a bit intrusive to receive a call, a personal visit or a “token floral arrangement” from a doctor’s office after a death.

    In a world where hospitals can apparently not afford to maintain safe staffing levels or pay for social workers to assist with meaningful discharge planning for patients, I hardly think having an item in the budget for floral arrangements for deceased patients makes sense. If hospitals and medical practices have extra funds, they should use them to improve patient care; perhaps then extravagant patient relations practices would not be felt to be necessary.

    • FEDUP MD

      As a physician, patient, and family member myself, I have appreciated when doctors with whom we’ve had long-term relationships have called, sent cards or flowers, or even come to services. I do the same for my long-term patients. I remain involved in some fundraising events for charity in honor of patients who have died. Granted, it would be weird to get a card from, say, my dentist. But someone who had seen me weekly or every other week for months to years? It would seem weird for them to disappear off the face of the earth.

      • guest

        I certainly have no problem with this sort of gesture in a situation where there’s a long-term doctor-patient relationship.

        I do have a problem with the suggestion that hospitals and medical practices have “protocols” to recognize all deaths with floral arrangements and personal notes and phone calls.

  • guest

    Again, no disagreement about its being kind to write a note regarding the passing of a long-time patient, although this scenario really applies only to medical practices, not hospitals. (And in a patient-centered medical home, where the patient is seen by a rotating cast of NPs and PAs and see his or her MD rarely, who has a personal enough relationship with the patient to write a note?)

    On a personal level, I have written many hand-written condolence notes over the years and am no stranger to the fact that bereaved families take comfort in them.

    My objection is to the suggestion that it should become some sort of standard practice to acknowledge every death with a “protocol” required gesture.

  • Patient Kit

    There are some things that you just can’t legislate or mandate. Mandatory condolences for all would be meaningless if people know it comes from rote protocol. Any gesture of condolence has to come from a doctor’s human impulse and an actual doctor-patient relationship. Those gestures already happen with no need for protocol. Forced gestures of condolence would be pretty empty.

    I do think there is room to raise awareness that a simple, hopefully heartfelt, gesture of condolence would be meaningful and comforting to most patient’s grieving families (in case doctors sometimes squash their very real impulse thinking it wouldn’t really help). At the same time, patients should be aware that simple expressions of thanks and appreciation matter to doctors.

    We can all feel pretty powerless against the machine of the healthcare industry. But we all — both doctors and patients — do still have the power to keep it human in our one-on-one encounters. That can’t be mandated though. It has to come from each of us voluntarily.

    • rbthe4th2

      When it is voluntary, as you’ve seen, people can see a doctor for how caring they are. That’s why they switched. Noticed after long term. My family had 1 doctor for 3 generations for an eye doctor. We still keep in touch with him. My grandmother and sister still go to the same doc and they can get my Mom in to see him when needed. He remembers them.
      It is that touch of humanity that we all appreciate it. Yes, we’re a job, but its nice to know that the “healing hand” isn’t all about the money.

  • Jane OfVirginia

    Our veterinarian always sends a lovely card when one of her long term patients and family member of ours, passes. It is very much appreciated.
    Seriously though, when our youngest son passed away suddenly at age 12, I was very touched, and strengthened to see his allergist and his pediatrician there in the second row at his funeral. The fact that they were so moved by his unexpected passing was of great help to our family. It helped us to realize how special our son had been to the world, and that the loss had been to the world, and not simply to our family.

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