Learning and coping through reflection: exploring patient death experiences of medical students

Travuth Trivate, Ashley A. Dennis, Sarah Sholl, Tracey Wilkinson (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)
652 Downloads (Pure)


Background: Existing studies have explored many aspects of medical students' experiences of patient death and propose the importance of faculty support for coping. However, UK-based literature on this subject and research concerning learning through reflection as part of coping are relatively limited. This study, through the lens of reflection, aims to explore students' experiences with patient death in a UK context. These include coping strategies, support from faculty following patient death and the relationship between these experiences and learning. Our research questions were: How do medical students cope with and learn from their experiences?How does support from ward staff and the medical school help them cope with and learn from these experiences?How can students best be supported following patient death?

Methods: We employed narrative inquiry to explore how medical students made sense of their experiences of patient death. Twelve students participated in our study via an online narrative questionnaire. Thematic analysis and complementary narrative analysis of an exemplar were applied to address our research aim.

Results: Coping strategies comprised internal and external strategies. Internal strategies included (1) re-interpretation of the death into a meaningful experience including lessons learned; (2) normalization; (3) staying busy and (4) enduring negative emotions. External strategies included speaking to someone, which was found to influence normalization, and lessons learned. Both satisfactory and unsatisfactory support from ward staff was identified. Satisfactory support was characterized by the inclusion of emotional and professional support. Unsatisfactory support was often characterized by a lack of emotional support. Narrative analysis further demonstrated how the experience with patient death was re-interpreted meaningfully. Students suggested that support should be structured, active, sensitive, and include peers and near-peers.

Conclusion: Many coping strategies, internal and external, were employed in students' experiences with patient death. Student reflections, enhanced by support from ward staff, were shown to be important for learning from patient death. We encourage faculty to have regular sessions in which medical students can reflect on the death incident and discuss appropriately with others, including peers and near-peers.

Original languageEnglish
Article number451
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
JournalBMC Medical Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 4 Dec 2019


  • Coping strategies
  • Medical students
  • Patient death
  • Reflection
  • Student support

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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