This has so far remained inevitable, but with long lives, low birth rates, nuclear families and a general expectation of good health and social and healthcare, citizens of current Western societies are arguably worse at dealing with it than in previous generations.
Doctors also find dealing with death difficult. There are two areas to explore here - the technical and legal aspects around death and the doctor's duties, and the medical/social/pastoral part of the relationship with survivors. The former is rather easy.
This article is a work in progress. Please feel free to contribute to it.
In general, the formal determination of death (the original life or death decision) is a task passed by society to doctors. Various tests have been described, but in the main the decision is easy, particularly if it is expected and hurry is moderated. There are, in the UK, exceptions - any suitable person may declare that an expected death has occurred, and the usefulness of a doctor attending who has not seen the patient or their family before is modest. However, it seems, in general, one of those things that goes toward defining what a doctor does remains the pronouncement of whether life is extinct. This seems proper.
Several tests for life are commonly used. In various circumstances one or more of them may not be possible, so it is as well to be used to several.
The absence of heart action and the breaking up of columns of blood in the fundi are common ones.
After pronouncing life extinct, you may want to close the patient's eyes. This gives the dead body a more serene and peaceful demeanour rather than an empty stare. Similarly, for the benefit of the relatives, the body should be straightened out and laid flat before rigor mortis sets in, especially if the patient was propped up in bed or lying in an awkward position.
In expected deaths which are unlikely to need discussion with the coroner, all tubes and dressings can be removed. However, in cases that may require further discussion with the coroner, it is best to consult the local guidance as there are no commonly agreed guidance on what to do with in situ medical devices at the time of death.
A common situation is what to do with endotracheal tubes at the time of death. Some coroners require that they be left in place because a misplaced tube could be a contributory factor to death. The difficulty with this approach is, firstly, that relatives may be inadvertently distressed, and secondly, there is no way of ensuring that the tube does not become dislodged between the place of death and the post mortem room. Nonetheless, if local guidelines are to leave the tube in, it is best to follow these rather than antagonise your local coroner.
If it is to be removed, it can be helpful (medicolegally) for the position of the tube to be checked by a separate qualified practitioner and for the information to be documented in the notes.
Situations Where Determination of Death is Difficult (Potential Pitfalls)
This is common, particularly in the elderly. As temperatures drop cognitive processes are impaired and individuals will not try to make any effort to keep warm. Alcohol is often a contributing factor.
Near drowning is often associated with hypothermia. There are well documented accounts of survival. Hypothermia may in fact by protective of the brain in near drownings. It is conventionally said that attempts to resuscitate should not be abandoned before rewarming is complete.
The overdose of some sedatives, hypnotics and opiates especially with alcohol can lead to marked respiratory depression which can mimic death if the proper safeguards are not followed. Overdose and hypothermia often co-exist.
see also Death certification
Death is usually diagnosed simply by the absence of heart sounds and breathing sounds, the absence of a pulse and dilated pupils. Other formalised testing is not required.
Brain death is death of the person, although the heart continues to beat and other automatic functions continue. It is not recoverable nor is the condition sustainable. This definition of death, tested most carefully and used in the setting of an intensive care unit when decisions need to be made on prolonging treatment or harvesting organs for transplantation, is robust against criticism and compliant with law. Decisions on brain death need to be taken by senior clinicians who demonstrably have an independence from the transplant teams. In the presence of doubt or worry, prudent doctors avoid rapid action and recruit further advice whether medical, legal, or both.
Anomalously, death below an arbitrary age acquired a second reporting system neither aligned nor integrated with the pre-existing one. Deaths of children are to be immediately separately reported and analysis for avoidable factors conducted. The arrangements are at present immature.
The time of death, in the eyes of the law, for the purposes of death certification and cremation forms, is the time when the patient is pronounced dead by a qualified person (usually a doctor or a nurse) (or when they pronounce life extinct in quaint legal language), even if the actual time of death was hours or days earlier. (This may be confusing to relatives.)
Around 60% of UK disposal is by cremation. Some other countries have a high rate of burial. Cremation certification is presently (2006) distinct from medical certification of the cause of death. Registration of deaths and stillbirths (also births and marriages) in the UK is via the General Registry Office.
Contrary to popular belief, there are relatively few communicable disease hazards associated with cadavers. See External links for guidance.
Leaving your body to medical research
Some people wish, often for altruistic reasons, to arrange that after their death their body can be used for medical research, or for teaching (teaching anatomy, or for other teaching purposes).
Originally, HM Anatomy Inspector was responsible for administering body donation, but this is now historical as the post no longer exists. The Human Tissue Authority (HTA) has inherited the role, but do not directly co-ordinate donations, being primarily concerned with overseeing the consent process. The HTA rules require that patients who would like to donate their bodies to medical science must provide written release and consent forms during life. Making the necessary arrangements after death can be difficult, if not impossible. Guidance on the consent process is available from the HTA web-site on How to donate your body
Those who wish to donate their bodies for anatomical teaching and dissection can contact the Royal College of Surgeons of England (see their guidance) or alternatively their local medical school or anatomy department. A list of contacts is available:
- via HTA medical finder: http://www.hta.gov.uk/schools/
- List of medical schools by postcode, with details of contact person
- Guidance from University of Bristol
Not all bodies will be suitable for dissection, of course, particularly if the anatomy is too distorted by disease. Medical schools will prefer intact bodies, not too much changed by disease, trauma or surgery. As a rough guide, a bequest may be turned down if:
- Post-mortem performed
- Transmissible disease - Hepatitis, HIV, Septicaemia
- Malignant disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Bedsores/Varicose ulcers
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Recent operations where wound not healed
- Arthritic deformity
If the entire body is not suitable for donation, the brain by itself can be donated. There are a number of Brain Banks across the UK who will accept donations, some of which will also organise retrieval and transport.
Prospective body donors might also wish to contact Prof von Hagens
Links that may be helpful for people who wish to leave their body for research or dissection include:
- New Zealand (Otago Daily Times) article on a documentary film about people who donate their bodies for medical research
Reporter: "And how did you feel, little girl, when you saw your daddy hanging there?"
There is no universal form of words or behaviour suitable for the occasion of a death, but some effort to express condolences is in order.
Deliberate attempts to provide post-trauma counselling will commonly cause harm, but thought should be given to the survivors after a month or so, in order to distinguish those who require some special management and to assist everyone in resolving lingering doubts.\
The medical, nursing and other professional attendants may also be counted among the survivors, and a minority of deaths have sufficient effect that leaders and members of the teams involved should take care of each other. Again, formal debriefing seems uncertainly productive.
Sub- and Cross-Cultural Aspects
Events around death are among the more obvious religious and cultural aspects of medical care.
Access to medical records of deceased patients
Access to the health records of a deceased person is governed by the Access to Health Records Act 1990. The Department of Health has provided some FAQs about "Application for deceased person's health records". The BMA has also published guidance on "Access to records of deceased patients".
- HSE guidance "Controlling the risks of infection at work from human remains. A guide for those involved in funeral services (including embalmers) and those involved in exhumation"
- HPA guidance (and links): "Management of infection control associated with human cadavers."
- ↑ Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Child Death Review processes. Last viewed 17/2/09.
- ↑ What's the time of death? 2010 (last viewed 28/4/10). DNUK thread (members only)
- ↑ Department of Health Page on Donating Body to Science. This link is largely historical as the HM Inspector of Anatomy no longer exists.
- ↑ BBC article about donating bodies for Professor Gunther von Hagens' exhibitions
- ↑ Brenda Harwood. 'Donated to Science' screens. Otago Daily Times (online version). 2009 (18 November). Last viewed 2010 (29 August).
- ↑ DH Access to Health Records. Last viewed 20 July 2007.
- ↑ Access to Health Records Act 1990 (c. 23). Last accessed 20 July 2007
- ↑ BMA. "Access to records of deceased patients". Revised December 2002. Last accessed 20 July 2007.