When a Patient Dies

Allied health professionals develop relationships with patients, their carers and families, sometimes over many years. At other times interactions with those at the end-of-life can be over a shorter period of time but can become quite intense.

There will come a time when an allied health professional's involvement with a patient comes to an end. Closing cases because the patient dies or transferring a patient's care to colleagues is not unusual in allied health roles. However, it can be quite difficult if the patient dies suddenly and unexpectedly, while you are still engaged in their treatment, and your relationship with the patient and family ends abruptly.

This can leave you with feelings of loss, and as it may happen regularly if you work in palliative care, it is important to find a way to manage it. Respecting professional boundaries and being aware of your own feelings can help. There may be an opportunity to attend the funeral of a patient, but this is not always possible or appropriate. Some palliative care units or hospices acknowledge the ongoing experience of losses with staff support strategies that may include memorial services or rituals especially for staff to participate in and to enable them to express their feelings regarding that patient or situation.

It can be helpful to develop your own strategies to say goodbye to patients who have died. For example, attending a death and bereavement review where the person's care and death is discussed, or saying goodbye to the patient after they have died, whether physically or in your mind.

It can be especially confronting when a patient dies in a non-palliative care setting like a rehabilitation unit, even if they have a known life-limiting illness. Hospitals often have support staff who can offer support to teams in situations like this.

Professional supervision is another way to reflect on a patient's death, your involvement and your emotions. Provide support to colleagues if you notice that they may need support following the death of a patient. Often the most immediate help is the informal support that occurs when debriefing with our peers and colleagues. Connecting with another trusted allied health staff member may also be a way to talk out your feelings. This can be done in your own unit or via networks developed through allied health organisations.
  

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Last updated 23 January 2017