Purpose: To examine medical students’ reflections on the spiritual care of a patient who has died so as to understand how students experienced this significant event and how they or their teams addressed patients’ spiritual needs.
Method: In 2010–2011, the authors gave third-year students at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine an essay assignment, prompting them to reflect on the experience of the death of one of their patients. The authors analyzed the content of the essays using an iterative, multistep process. Three authors independently coded the essays for themes based on the competencies (developed by Puchalski and colleagues and reflected in the essay prompt) of communication, compassionate presence, patient care, and personal and professional development. The authors reached consensus through discussion.
Results: A salient theme in the students’ writings was awareness of their personal and professional development. Students reported being aware that they were becoming desensitized to the human dimension of care, and particularly to dying patients and their families. Students wished to learn to contain their emotions to better serve their patients, and they articulated a commitment to addressing patient and family needs. Students identified systemic fragmentation of patient care as a barrier to meeting patient needs and as a facilitator of provider desensitization.
Conclusions: Written student reflections are a rich source of data regarding the spiritual care of dying patients and their families. They provide insight into the personal and professional development of medical students and suggest that medical schools should support students’ formation.