How Doctors Die: A Unique Perspective on End-of-Life

How Doctors Die: A Unique Perspective on End-of-Life

Image: Nil Taskin Digital Art

It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.

End-of-life care is a topic that touches the lives of all of us, yet it remains one of the most challenging and emotionally charged aspects of healthcare. In a world where medical technology can offer remarkable possibilities for extending life, it’s important to take a step back and reflect on the choices and decisions that surround the end of life. Two articles, one from 2011 by Ken Murray and another from 2016 by Emily Wilson, shed light on a unique perspective: how doctors themselves approach the end of their lives.

Of course, doctors don’t want to die; they want to live. But they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They’ve talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen–that they will never experience, during their last moments on earth, someone breaking their ribs in an attempt to resuscitate them with CPR (that’s what happens if CPR is done right).

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In 2011, Dr. Ken Murray penned an article titled “How Doctors Die.” He shared anecdotes and observations from his medical career, illustrating how physicians often choose a different path when it comes to their own end-of-life care. Dr. Murray highlighted that doctors, who are intimately familiar with the limitations of modern medicine and the potential suffering involved in futile interventions, often opt for less aggressive treatments and prioritize comfort and dignity in their final moments.

One of the key takeaways from Dr. Murray’s article is the importance of communication and advanced care planning. He emphasized that doctors, along with their families, openly discuss their preferences for end-of-life care. This proactive approach allows them to avoid unnecessary and painful interventions that may not align with their values and wishes.

In 2016, a study led by Harvard Medical School researchers further examined the end-of-life care choices of physicians. This study affirmed Dr. Murray’s observations, showing that doctors are less likely to undergo intense end-of-life treatments compared to the general population. The findings indicate that physicians are more inclined to avoid hospitalizations, surgeries, and intensive care unit (ICU) admissions during their last six months of life.

Image: Nil Taskin Digital Art

Why do doctors choose this path?

The articles suggest several reasons. Physicians have firsthand experience with the challenges and often limited benefits of aggressive medical interventions. They understand the importance of quality of life over quantity and are more inclined to prioritize comfort and peace in their final moments. Additionally, doctors have the knowledge and resources to make informed decisions and advocate for their preferences.

These insights into how doctors approach the end of their lives raise important questions about how we, as a society, view and manage end-of-life care. It challenges us to consider whether the aggressive and often painful treatments that some patients receive in their final days align with their values and preferences.

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One significant shift in recent years is the recognition of the importance of hospice and palliative care. Hospice care focuses on providing terminally ill patients with comfort, dignity, and support, rather than pursuing aggressive and often futile cures. Studies have shown that people in hospice care often live longer and experience a better quality of life than those seeking aggressive treatments.

Image: Nil Taskin Digital Art

As we reflect on the perspectives shared in these articles, it becomes clear that end-of-life care should not be solely about extending life at any cost but about ensuring a peaceful and dignified transition. The experiences of doctors and their choices offer valuable lessons for us all. It underscores the need for open conversations about our own end-of-life preferences, the importance of advanced care planning, and the benefits of prioritizing quality of life when faced with terminal illness.

In conclusion, the articles “How Doctors Die” by Ken Murray and the Harvard study on physicians’ end-of-life care shed light on a unique perspective within the healthcare system. They highlight the importance of informed decision-making, open communication, and the prioritization of comfort and dignity in end-of-life care. These insights challenge us to reevaluate our approach to end-of-life care and consider the value of hospice and palliative care in ensuring a peaceful and meaningful transition for ourselves and our loved ones.


Nil Taskin