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Doctors, death, and dying

BMJ 2017; 357 doi: (Published 02 May 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;357:j1688
  1. Anna Sayburn, freelance journalist
  1. London, UK

What do doctors think about their own mortality?

When Breath Becomes Air,1 Paul Kalanithi’s poignant account of life and death as a young doctor diagnosed with terminal cancer, has been long listed for the Wellcome Book Awards 2017. The memoir, unfinished at the time of his death aged 37, is the latest of several recently published books by doctors musing on mortality.

But do medics think about death differently from the rest of the population? In this article, doctors from a variety of specialties explain how the impact of exposure to death has affected how they think about their own mortality.


“I don’t know how often the average person thinks about death,” says Louise Robinson, GP and professor of primary care and ageing at Newcastle University. She finds that awareness of mortality manifests for her as “really appreciating life,” having seen how quickly someone can go from seemingly good health to a terminal trajectory.

However, Richard Smith, former editor of The BMJ, disagrees: “I think doctors are as adept as everyone else at shoving it to the back of their minds . . . Death is something that happens to patients,” he says.

For Charles Young, an emergency physician at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, doctors’ sense that they have a unique insight is misplaced: “Lots of people come across death in one way or another . . . We see ourselves as having a particular kind of knowledge or understanding, and I think that’s quite wrong.”

A 2012 survey of GPs by ComRes, on behalf of the organisation Dying Matters,2 found that only 35% of GPs have talked to someone about their own end of life wishes. Just over half have made a will and registered as an organ donor, but only 7% have written …

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