‘We don’t speak much about patient death.’

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Researchers from QUT are investigating how pharmacists manage the emotional and professional impacts of patient death

Marea Patounas, associate lecturer in pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at QUT, told the AJP that earlier this year, a research paper caught her eye: it discussed how podiatrists handled the death of long-term, well-known patients.

“This sparked a two-fold idea for me as an academic: implementing the reading into my first year undergraduate interprofessional subject for a broad reach (future podiatrists, pharmacists, paramedics, medical radiation therapists,” she said.

She also began discussing the subject as a potential research project with some colleagues at QUT: the supervisory team, Dr Esther Lau, Tony Hall, and Hung Tran.

 “So in discussions with some QUT colleagues, we thought it would be a great Honours project for a keen fourth-year pharmacy student to conduct, with us as supervisors.

“We had to find the right student who was keen on working with us, and with the subject—that was Robin Parr!

“My colleague, Tony Hall, a pharmacist pain specialist, is an active member of pharmacist palliative care Specialist Interest Group forums and is particularly keen to explore this area of practice.

“So the supervisory team had several meetings (and with Robin) to chat about our own personal and professional experiences with (patient) death, and also how much we currently teach the undergraduate pharmacy students about it.”

Ms Patounas says that generally speaking, pharmacists need to have more conversations about dealing with patient death, and more confidence in doing so – and the pharmacists of the future must be equipped to handle them.

“We suspect that university programs have training gaps in this area,” she said.

“We do touch on it in my subject, where a couple of patients in the case study actually die during a road traffic crash; but we suspect that most undergrad Bachelor Programs don’t educate/prepare students for their first encounter in the real world.”

“Normally pharmacists are always dispensing and counselling about medicines to improve life, and to improve health.

“We don’t (on the whole, as a profession) speak much about patient death—certainly this was the case when I went through uni!

“In my community pharmacy career, I only can clearly recall one very challenging and emotional encounter when dealing with a patient’s family whose loved one had passed away due to suicide

“He was a long-term customer to my pharmacy where I had been working a long time. I had no professional support networks at the time, had never experienced a death in the family, and didn’t know what to do, how to deal with it and how to process it.

“It still affects me now, and I can share this narrative with future pharmacists and other health discipline students in the classroom, for their future practice, and how to self-care,” she said.

“We think there could be lots of opportunities to teach (undergrad) students about patient death, and their involvement more broadly when supporting patients and their families during difficult times, and at end of life.

“Also, how pharmacists and other health professionals need to self-care around this issue, how to process it, where their support networks are.

“So, having more conversations about death would be our ultimate desire, with undergrad students especially.”

The researchers are looking for pharmacists with experience in practice areas involving patient death – such as oncology, palliative care, emergency, geriatrics or intensive care – to participate in a 20-minute online survey.

“The aim of this study is to investigate preparedness of pharmacists and future pharmacists for coping / dealing with patient death.

“We’d like to raise awareness around these issues, and raise knowledge about the feedback we receive from the pharmacists currently working in practice areas dealing with patient death.”

The survey is available here.

Pharmacists who are distressed can contact the Pharmacists’ Support Service on 1300 244 910.

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