‘Die’ or ‘Pass Away’? Docs’ Euphemisms May Muddle Talks About Death

Doctor-family discussions about death often are riddled with medical jargon like “irrecoverable heart rate drop” and “code event,” which may affect the clarity of the medical team’s message, new research shows.

Clear communication is essential in discussing death with patients and families and current consensus guidelines recommend against use of euphemisms; data also suggest that patients and families prefer clear and direct language, wrote Margaret H. Barlet, of Duke University, Durham, N.C., and colleagues.

However, data on the language used in discussions of death in neonatal or pediatric contexts are limited, they said.

In a study published in JAMA Network Open, the researchers reviewed conversations between clinicians and parents of critically ill children. The study participants included 20 parents of 13 infants with neurological conditions who were hospitalized in a pediatric ICU in a single center in the southeastern United States between September 2018 and September 2020. Family meetings were scheduled to discuss prognosis and whether to start, not start, or discontinue life-sustaining treatment. The discussions were recorded, transcribed, and deidentified. The median age of the parents was 28.5 years; 60% identified as Black, 40% as White, and 10% as Asian; with some selecting more than one race.

For all 13 infants, one parent identified as the infant’s mother, and another parent identified as the father for seven of the infants. The median gestational age of the infants was 37 weeks; 54% were female, and the median hospital stay was 86 days.

Twelve infants (92%) required mechanical ventilation, six required chest compressions, and five had a do-not-attempt resuscitation order placed. Two infants died during the hospital admission process.

The primary outcome of the study was language used to reference death during family meetings between doctors and families. In the family conversations, death was referenced 406 times (275 times by clinicians and 131 times by family members).

Families were more likely than were clinicians to use the words die, death, dying, or stillborn; these terms appeared in 19 of 131 references by families and 13 of 275 references by clinicians (15% vs. 5%).

In addition to a category for use of words such as die, death, dying, or stillborn, the researchers identified four types of euphemisms used in place of these terms. They characterized the types of euphemisms as survival framing (for example, not live), colloquialisms (for example, pass away), medical jargon or use of physiologic terms (for example, code event or irrecoverable heart rate drop) and the use of pronouns without an antecedent (for example, it might happen soon).

Overall, 92% of references to death in the conversations were euphemistic. Medical jargon was the most common type of euphemism used by clinicians (118 of 275 references, 43%), while colloquialism was the most common type used by family members (44 of 131 references, 34%).

The results are consistent with limited research on this topic and show the high rates of euphemistic language used in discussions of death, the researchers wrote in their discussion. “Although our work did not directly evaluate the comparative clarity of different ways to reference death, our results raise questions about what language is most clear,” they said. The researchers proposed that their classification of euphemistic language may provide a framework for the use of language in discussions of death and may prompt clinicians to notice the language they use and hear from patients and families. “Empirically evaluating the perceived clarity of euphemism types and their effects on shared decision-making should be a priority for future study and should be used to inform interventions for improving communication in this context,” they said.

The findings were limited by several factors including the use of data from a single institution and the exclusion of non-English speaking families, the researchers noted. In addition, the researchers studied only what was said, therefore “questions about speaker motivation, listener understanding, and the effects of language choice on decision-making remain unanswered,” they added.

However, the results reflect the frequent use of euphemisms by both clinicians and families, and more research is needed to assess the effect of language on understanding, decision-making, and doctor-patient relationships, the researchers concluded.

Euphemisms Can Create Confusion but May Increase Empathy

“Ms. Barlet and colleagues provide further consideration of types of speech that may obscure a clinician’s intended meaning or distract from their true point in the context of family discussions about critically ill patients,” Michael B. Pitt, MD, of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and colleagues wrote in an accompanying editorial. Using a euphemism such as “pass on” instead of “die” may be an intentional choice by physicians to use less harsh language but it may still cause confusion, they noted.

The study showed how frequently physicians use euphemisms to talk about death but was distinctive in the inclusion of data on language use by families as well, they said.

“This pattern of use identified among the infants’ families may indicate that despite the clinical recommendation that end-of-life discussions avoid the use of euphemisms, it may be worth noting and responding to families’ language preferences accordingly once it is clear they have expressed understanding that the clinician is speaking of death,” they said. For example, if a family is consistently using softer terminology, clinicians should consider responding with similar terms, rather than using medical jargon or the words death or dying, they wrote.

“As the authors note, family preferences for this type of discussion are an important target for future research aimed at optimizing family-centered communication,” the editorialists added.

Families Seek Clarity in Communication

“Clinicians have an important role in helping parents of seriously ill children understand their child’s health condition and make value-driven decisions about care,” Jennifer W. Mack, MD, of Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, said in an interview. “The words that clinicians use can have a significant impact on the knowledge parents take away from encounters and the decisions they make. While there is evidence of euphemistic language in the adult setting, there is limited information about this in children,” said Mack, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist who was not involved in the study.

Mack said she was not entirely surprised that in the current study, clinician language often includes medical jargon and an avoidance of direct language about death. “This is consistent with what I have seen in clinical practice,” she said. “One striking aspect of the study is that parents used terms like death or die more often than clinicians, and they sometimes used these terms as a way to clarify what the clinician was saying. This suggests to me that parents often want clarity, even if the information is very difficult,” she said.

The key message of the study is that clinicians should pay attention to the words they use to talk about the possibility of death and recognize the tendency of many clinicians to fall back on medical jargon, said Mack.

“My personal belief is that it is possible to be both clear and compassionate, and clinicians should strive for both in these conversations, to support families and help them make their best decisions for their children,” she said. “We need to remember a single communication strategy or choice of words is not likely to feel supportive to every family; what is helpful for one family may feel painful to another,” she emphasized. “Being willing to listen to the needs they express and their own language choice can help us to be responsive to individual needs,” she added.

An important next step for research is to learn more about what families experience as supportive during conversations with clinicians about death and dying, Mack said.

The study was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The researchers, editorial authors, and Mack had no financial conflicts to disclose.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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