Doctors feel grief, too

New book explores emotional responses to patient care

Topics: Collaboration, Workforce, Employee Engagement, Oncology, Service Lines, Access to Care, Quality, Performance Improvement, Patient Experience, Mortality

June 19, 2013

The New York Times this week spotlighted a new book by Bellevue Hospital Center internist Danielle Ofri that discusses the traumatizing grief that many physicians experience during their careers—and their (often unsuccessful) efforts to compartmentalize it.

The book—called "What Doctors Feel"—recounts a number of examples of how physicians encountered and dealt with intense emotions across their careers. One young pediatrician grieves over the death of a newborn who was doomed to asphyxiation in the minutes after her birth because of a severe lack of amniotic fluid in the womb.

Her traumatized parents were unable to watch her die, so the pediatrician sat in the supply closet with the infant as the dying newborn faded. "'I love you, baby,' she whispered as the heart began its slow, cratering descent," Ofri writes.

The doctor attempted to wall off the emotions she felt from the experience, but months later, she developed full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder. "It does make one wonder how doctors cope," notes Kate Hafner, who reviewed the book for the Times.

In her book, Ofri cites a study into how oncologists compartmentalize grief. "[T]the most striking finding of the study was how poorly that strategy worked," Hafner writes, adding that grief "spilled into the physicians' daily lives and sapped them of their inner strength."

In the book, Ofri writes that when emotions affect a physician this deeply, "factors other than clinical competency come into play." A doctor suffering from compassion fatigue likely will struggle to provide patients with the best possible care.

Ofri devotes a whole a chapter to malpractice lawsuits and tells the story of being sued by a patient's family that she had grown quite close to. "Dealing with a lawsuit is often likened to having a death in the family," Ofri writes, adding that physicians "end up (often unconsciously) grieving for the doctors they used to be" (Hafner, New York Times, 6/18).

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