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Original Investigation
October 11, 2004

Talking With Terminally Ill Patients and Their Caregivers About Death, Dying, and Bereavement: Is It Stressful? Is It Helpful?

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Clinical Bioethics, Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md (Dr E. J. Emanuel); Center for Research Methodology and Biometrics, Cancer Research Center, American Medical Center, Denver, Colo (Dr Fairclough); Wolfe Statistical Consulting, LLC, Denver (Ms Wolfe); and Buehler Center on Aging, Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago, Ill (Dr L. L. Emanuel). The authors have no relevant financial interest in this article.

Arch Intern Med. 2004;164(18):1999-2004. doi:10.1001/archinte.164.18.1999

Background  Discussing end-of-life issues with terminally ill patients is often considered distressing and harmful. This study was conducted to assess whether interviewing terminally ill patients and their caregivers about death, dying, and bereavement is stressful and/or helpful.

Methods  Patients from 6 sites in the United States who were estimated to have 6 months or less to live were interviewed in person and reinterviewed 2 to 6 months later. Their caregivers were interviewed separately. At the end of the interviews, patients and caregivers were asked how stressful and how helpful the interview had been. Of 1131 eligible patients, 988 (87.4%) were interviewed, and of 915 eligible caregivers, 893 (97.6%) were interviewed.

Results  At the end of the first interview, 1.9% of the patients reported having experienced a great deal of stress, 7.1% some stress, and 88.7% little or no stress from the interview. Among the caregivers, 1.5% reported a great deal of stress, 8.4% some stress, and 89.7% little or no stress. Slightly more stress was reported to have been caused by the reinterview. Overall, 16.9% of the patients reported the initial interview as very helpful, 29.6% as somewhat helpful, and 49.6% as offering little or no help. Among the caregivers, 19.1% reported the initial interview as very helpful, 34.3% as somewhat helpful, and 44.9% as offering little or no help. The reported helpfulness of the second interview was slightly less. Patients experiencing pain (odds ratio [OR], 1.26; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.02-1.56), more personal meaning in dying (OR, 3.05; 95% CI, 2.02-4.59), and less ease with talking about the end of life (OR, 1.32; 95% CI, 1.09-1.60) were significantly more likely to report stress. Patients who were from an ethnic minority (OR, 1.85; 95% CI, 1.31-2.63), anxious about the end of their life (OR, 1.39; 95% CI 1.16-1.67), more spiritual (OR, 1.30; 95% CI, 1.06-1.61), and serene (OR, 1.25; 95% CI, 1.08-1.45) were significantly more likely to report the interview helpful. There was no relationship between stress and helpfulness.

Conclusions  Terminally ill patients and their caregivers can discuss death, dying, and bereavement in a structured interview with minimal stress and report that the interview was helpful. Institutional review boards should not preemptively restrict surveys with terminally ill patients without reliable evidence that they will be stressful or otherwise harmful.