When Your Doctor Dies

Several studies have explored the experience of grief that physicians feel when they lose a patient.

But what about when the patient loses a physician—when the doctor dies?

Dr. K was a well-known child psychiatrist, a loving husband, a father of two, and an irreplaceable support and friend for a number of children suffering from trauma, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and other challenging psychiatric conditions. Earlier this year, Dr. K passed away in a tragic accident while vacationing with his family. His loss was nearly unbearable for most of us.

Days after the funeral, a colleague of Dr. K inquired into whose care his patients would be transferred. She was shocked to hear that one of his patients, a young teenager suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, anxiety, and depression, had overdosed on his medication and committed suicide the day he heard of Dr. K’s death. It was no coincidence.

Behind the family members, close friends, colleagues, and acquaintances are the physician’s patients. They are part of a separate, almost secret life that the physician leads. And yet, the patient is whom the physician spends more time with than anyone else—they are in some ways the truest reflection of the doctor. While family and others grieve together in collective remembrance, patients often do so isolated, alone, confidential.

There is no data on patient experiences with physician death, perhaps because it is not quite as common as the reverse scenario. But physicians are people and they die in all kinds of ways, some naturally and others unexpectedly. The bond between the patient and physician is hard to measure and understand, but in Dr. K’s death, we all understood it a little more. When you lose someone who was fighting for your life, you essentially lose a part of yourself.

Managing the care of patients who have lost their physician is an important topic that deserves attention. Particularly for those who form strong emotional bonds with their physicians, such as psychiatric patients, attempting to cope with such an immense tragedy without proper support can be extremely debilitating and in some cases, even life-threatening. In many ways, this alludes to the reality that medicine is less a job than a relationship, less about medications and procedures than about life, love and humanism. We miss you Dr. K—your family, your friends, your colleagues, and your patients.

Abraar Karan is a Yale graduate and MD candidate at UCLA. He blogs at Swasthya Mundial.

14 replies »

  1. I am a patient that found out today my primary care doctor died. Due to my medical history I had to see him every week for the last year. He was my doctor for years. Now I’m in shock and grieving as I still have to get my pt/inr checked every two weeks. I think it’s imperative to have grief counselors for patients as an option. Also maybe clergy depending on patient needs. Also the ability to meet with others for mutual support. I was a regular and got to know the office staff and nurses. It would help to have time to commiserate with them.

  2. This is an interesting point of view. Some people believe and love the doctor who cares about they health, lose him or her could mark an important change in they life.

  3. Great post, thanks for sharing it with us.

    Do you know of any doctors who take precautionary steps to ensure that their patients receive proper care in the event of their death? (a patient will, of sorts)

    Obviously, it is a patient’s decision, but having some planned support certainly couldn’t hurt.

  4. I had a similar experience when my doctor was fired by the organization he worked for, one week shy of a surgery he was scheduled to perform. I was called by the organization who merely informed me that “We will be rescheduling your surgery with one of our other doctors.” I did not find out until months later (through Google searches) that he was fired because a malpractice lawsuit had been decided against him and the organization was apparently hoping to reduce their risk of additional suits.

    I certainly felt as though my relationship that I had developed with the doctor over the years was disregarded entirely. Even though I understand the reasoning, I felt as though it could have been handled in a better way, I was left feeling very much at a loss, at a time when I was already feeling vulnerable and nervous.

  5. I’m sorry to hear of his passing–clearly this is an issue that must be addressed with a well thought out protocol.

  6. You’re right– a much more common practice is physicians physically moving away. Hopefully when that happens, they take a lead role in making sure their patients are transferred to the care of doctors that they know and trust although the relationship they have created is irreplaceable.

  7. Agreeably, we don’t think or plan about such scenerio in individual or group practices: I wonder why? It certainly isn’t because we don’t care enough about our patients? It could be because such communication or planning is perceived as something less important in contingency plan because of competing priorities Or is it something we are willing to take our chances because (and hopefully) the odds of physician death for an individual or a practice is low. Many (if not most) physicians do carry a personal life insurance policy in planning for the future of their families in this similarly unlikely event. I myself didn’t think about this so carefully until you so beautifully (and sadly!) narrate in this tragic story of tremendous loss for family, friends and PATIENTS! Undeniably, physician’s loss is significant because he/she is an advocate for the health and well being of the patients, and unfortunately, it is the patients’ who seem to be one of the last ones to find out, or allowed to grieve together with others in their physician’s loss.

    On a much smaller scale, we do live through such experiences in our practices as physician’s relocate or move, whereby, there is none to slim contingency plan for patient notification. Driven by fear of loss of patients or medical malpractice or simply as a Good Clinical Practice gesture, some group practices may have a standard template driven letter sent to patients, which seldem offers any plan of transition or offers to discuss the patients actual (or perceived) loss of a friend and partner in their care.

    Indeed an important and thought provoking issue and one we all as physicians/practices need to plan for. Thank you for sharing the legacy and life of Dr K with us all.

  8. I agree that this topic needs to be discussed and physicians and other health care providers have to have a protocol in place to address this should the need arise.

  9. Well put. Medicine is almost never just a commodity. It is relationship based and very personal. You raise an important issue for mental health organizations in particular, but also for all providers who have long term relationships with patients: Do we have a plan for reaching out to patients who have lost their doctor? Most of us probably don’t yet, but we should start the conversation! Thank you for raising this issue.

  10. Timely post for me. Earlier this week I realized it had been a while since I’d had my teeth cleaned and checked. But before picking up the phone to make an appointment, I remembered that my dentist, a capable and personable man whom I’d grown to like very much over the course of our 15-year doctor-patient relationship, had informed the last time I’d seen him that his esophageal cancer, believed to be in remission, had recurred. A quick Google confirmed my worst fear: he died last month. I have to wonder why his practice did not think to send out notes to his patients when this happened. It would have acknowledged his place in our lives.