A study published on May 16 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society disproves the common belief that doctors are more likely to die at home and employ fewer end-of-life medical interventions that can save their lives. It turns out that doctors enroll in hospice care and spend as much time in hospitals and intensive care units (ICUs) just like everyone else.

“The overall narrative that doctors die differently is false,” says study author Stacy Fischer, a physician as well as an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “We found that doctors used more hospice care – about two days on average – but when you look at the length of stay in hospital in the last months of life, there is no difference between them and the rest of population.”

The researchers assert that these medical interventions are usually useless. Hence, they believe that this study can focus the attention on low-value care that is currently a part of the health care system.


Doctors enroll in hospice care and spend time in ICU just like everyone else. Credit: Visiting Nurse Health System

The popular belief was presented in an essay by a retired family physician named Ken Murray in 2011. To confirm this theory, the new study’s researchers studied 9,947 deaths of doctors, who died at age 83 on the average, in the years between 2008 and 2010.

The team found out that the proportion of physicians staying in the ICU were similar to non-physicians. However, doctors spent slightly more days in the ICU in their last six months and one month of life.

About 46.4 percent of physicians lived in hospice care during their last six months of life, which is a bit higher than the 43.2 percent of non-physicians who did the same thing. Moreover, these dying doctors spent 2.4 days longer than non-physicians, on the average.

“Many of these physicians trained and practiced medicine at a time before hospice or palliative care and before many of the technological advances in intensive care,” adds Daniel Matlock. “Second, fear and avoidance of dying are strong motivators of much of human behaviour and perhaps physicians are not immune to these fears of dying.”