Doctors should be trained in art of ‘diagnosing death’


Diagnosing death
‘Diagnosing death’ would prevent unnecessary distress at the end of life.

Doctors need to be trained in the art of “diagnosing” death to prevent unnecessary distress at the end of life, an expert has claimed.

Dr Erna Haraldsdottir, a senior lecturer at Queen Margaret’s University, in Musselburgh, called for a shake-up of thinking on medical intervention for the dying after watching her elderly father-in-law die in hospital.

The 84-year-old had been diagnosed with dementia five years beforehand and his family watched his gradual decline until he was admitted to hospital. Although he was elderly and very frail, doctors attempted to discharge him at one point and tried to resuscitate him as a “do not resuscitate” note had not been arranged.

Doctors were also reluctant to issue a death certificate as they were unsure of his cause of death.

Writing in the European Journal of Palliative Care, Dr Haraldsdottir said doctors need to change their mindsets over when patients need medical intervention and try to “diagnose” death.

Dr Haraldsdottir, who also leads a pioneering research programme at St Columba’s Hospice in Edinburgh, said: “In my own experience, our family believed my father-in-law had a good death, however what was noticeable was the staff’s lack of insight into the situation and understanding of what was happening.

“This caused the family unnecessary upset and distress – which could have been avoided if the medical team had applied the principles of palliative care to the assessment and care.”

Ministers unveiled a five-year plan to put palliative care at the heart of the NHS in December and to ensure a greater openness around death and dying.

It comes after a Glasgow researchers found falling numbers of Scots were dying at home, despite many saying it was what they wanted.

It is more important than ever for hospices to be leading the way when it comes to developing care around death and dying, said Dr Duncan Brown, medical director at St Columba’s Hospice.

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