- Cause of death on this 1937 death certificate? “Senile gangrene.”
I’ve always had nagging doubts about filling out death certificates.
An excellent article in the trade paper “American Medical News” by Carolyne Krupa explores the “inexactitude” of the custom.
As Krupa points out, doctors are never taught how to fill out the documents. She quotes Randy Hanzlick, MD, chief medical examiner for Fulton County, GA:
“Training is a big problem. There are very few medical schools that teach it,” he said. “For many physicians, the first time they see it is when they are doing their internship or residency and one of their patients dies. The nurse hands them a death certificate and says, ‘Fill this out.’ ”
That’s pretty much how it works. Though sometimes the person that comes calling with the death certificate is a hospital clerk. And she will make you fill out the form carefully, using only ‘allowable’ causes of death.
Of course, everyone dies from the same thing:lack of oxygen to the brain. But you can’t list that. Nor can you list common “jargon-y” favorites like “cardiopulmonary arrest,” “respiratory failure,” “sepsis,” or “multi-system organ failure.” All of which are true, but too inexact to be useful.
It’s intimidating to be the one to “pronounce” someone dead, and be the final arbiter of the cause. Isn’t that why we have medical examiners/pathologists?
We don’t autopsy patients much anymore, a trend that concerns many in the industry but doesn’t seem likely to change. That leaves interns and residents (at teaching hospitals) and community docs (in the real world) in charge of filling out these important statistical and historic documents.
News organizations used Dr. Judah Folkman’s death to report on his decades-long cancer research career. Given his status as a distant, non-celebrity, non-Nobel surgeon, you may be asking yourself why you, personally, should care about his death. Here’s why.
We were in our second year of medical school, feeling the growing pressure of clinical years just around the corner, when we would be thrown into the hospital system. For now, we had lectures in a large hall with 130 students sitting in chairs that sloped down to a stage. Professors came with presentations and handouts and complex diagrams. The immunology lectures were continuous strings of letters and numbers, with only the occasional verb, impossible to decode as human speech without months of training. Every tissue, every disease, every human physiologic function was discussed, down to the sub-molecular level. After hours of these lectures, the air would get stale and backs would ache and the squeak of weight shifting in chairs would become a metronomic beat marking out time that seemed to pass endlessly.
Then, one day, Dr. Folkman walked on stage. He asked us to put down our pens. He said he was going to teach us something that no one else would ever discuss, much less teach. I can’t imagine what he was thinking as he looked out on the sea of our faces. Give or take a few years, almost all of us were twenty-four years old. Almost all of us were single, ambitious, untouched by any of the major human experiences—no children, tragedies, severe illnesses or grief. The youth, the arrogance, the lack of world experience, all of it had to be a daunting, uninspiring sight. Dr. Folkman knew that in mere months, we would be keepers of information that would profoundly change lives. Pathology reports, cancer diagnoses, even the death of a loved one, those were all things we would be telling vulnerable people. Our actions and our words would be often unsupervised, particularly when disaster struck in the middle of the night.