Experiences of Canadian oncologists with difficult patient deaths and coping strategies used

L. Granek, L. Barbera, O. Nakash, M. Cohen, M.K. Krzyzanowska



We aimed to explore and identify what makes patient death more emotionally difficult for oncologists and how oncologists cope with patient death.


A convenience sample of 98 Canadian oncologists (50 men, 48 women) completed an online survey that included a demographics section and a section about patient death.


More than 80% of oncologists reported that patient age, long-term management of a patient, and unexpected disease outcomes contributed to difficult patient loss. Other factors included the doctor–patient relationship, identification with the patient, caregiver-related factors, oncologist-related factors, and “bad deaths.” Oncologists reported varying strategies to cope with patient death. Most prevalent was peer support from colleagues, including nurses and other oncologists. Additional strategies included social support, exercise and meditation, faith, vacations, and use of alcohol and medications.


Oncologists listed a number of interpersonal and structural factors that make patient death challenging for them to cope with. Oncologists reported a number of coping strategies in responding to patient death, including peer support, particularly from nursing colleagues. No single intervention will be suitable for all oncologists, and institutions wishing to help their staff cope with the emotional difficulty of patient loss should offer a variety of interventions to maximize the likelihood of oncologist participation.


Oncologists; well-being; coping; patient death

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.3747/co.24.3527

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ISSN: 1198-0052 (Print) ISSN: 1718-7729 (Online)