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Narrative nuances on good and bad deaths: internists’ tales from high-technology work places

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DelVecchio Good, M. J.; Gadmer, N. M.; Ruopp, P.; Lakoma, M.; Sullivan, A. M.; Redinbaugh, E.; Arnold, R. M.; Block, S. D.

Public and professional discourses in American society about what constitutes a "good death" have flourished in recent decades, as illustrated by the pivotal SUPPORT study and the growing palliative care movement. This paper examines a distinctive medical discourse from high-technology academic medical centers through an analysis of how physicians who are specialists in internal medicine tell stories about the deaths of patients in their care. 163 physicians from two major academic medical centers in the United States completed both qualitative open interviews and quantitative attitudinal measures on a recent death and on the most emotionally powerful death they experienced in the course of their careers. A subsample of 75 physicians is the primary source for the qualitative analysis, utilizing Atlas-ti."Good death" and "bad death" are common in popular discourse on death and dying. However, these terms are rarely used by physicians in this study when discussing specific patients and individual deaths. Rather, physicians’ narratives are nuanced with professional judgments about what constitutes quality end-of-life care. Three major themes emerge from these narratives and frame the positive and negative characteristics of patient death. Time and Process: whether death was expected or unexpected, peaceful, chaotic or prolonged; Medical Care and Treatment Decisions: whether end-of-life care was rational and appropriate, facilitating a "peaceful" or "gentle" death, or futile and overly aggressive, fraught with irrational decisions or adverse events; Communication and Negotiation: whether communication with patients, family and medical teams was effective, leading to satisfying management of end-of-life care, or characterized by misunderstandings and conflict. When these physicians’ narratives about patient deaths are compared with the classic sociological observations made by Glaser and Strauss in their study A Time for Dying (1968), historical continuities are evident as are striking differences associated with rapid innovation in medical technologies and a new language of medical futility. This project is part of a broader effort in American medicine to understand and improve end-of-life care.

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