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How doctors die in the United States

May 31, 2016

In a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers examined the kind of medical interventions doctors used toward the end of their lives.

The researchers wanted to test the theory, based on prior surveys, that doctors would choose less high-intensity hospital-based care at the end of their lives than would people without medical training. To test its theory, the research team examined Medicare records from 9,947 deceased physicians and 191,426 deceased non-doctors.

What the team discovered did not coincide with their expectations or with previous research:
  • The number of days spent in the hospital during the last six months, as well as during the last one month of life, was about the same for doctors and non-doctors.

  • The proportion of doctors and non-doctors who had at least one stay in an intensive care unit (ICU) was about the same toward the end of life.

  • Doctors spent slightly more days in an ICU than non-doctors during the last six months and the last one month of life.

  • More than 46 percent of doctors, versus 43.2 percent of non-doctors, had enrolled in hospice care for some amount of time during the last six months of life.

The average age of the physicians in the study was 83. The researchers hypothesized that many of these doctors trained and practiced medicine before hospice and palliative care (which eases discomfort toward the end of life) were in use. They also suggested that fear and avoidance of dying are strong motivators of human behavior, to which doctors are not immune.
This summary is from "How U.S. Doctors Die: A Cohort Study of Health Care Utilization at the End of Life." It appears in the May 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study authors are Daniel D. Matlock, MD, MPH; Traci E. Yamashita; Min Sung-Joon, PhD; Alexander K. Smith, MD, MPH; Amy S. Kelley, MD, MSHS; and Stacy Fischer, MD.

About the Health in Aging Foundation

This research summary was developed as a public education tool by the Health in Aging Foundation. The Foundation is a national non-profit established in 1999 by the American Geriatrics Society to bring the knowledge and expertise of geriatrics healthcare professionals to the public. We are committed to ensuring that people are empowered to advocate for high-quality care by providing them with trustworthy information and reliable resources. Last year, we reached nearly 1 million people with our resources through We also help nurture current and future geriatrics leaders by supporting opportunities to attend educational events and increase exposure to principles of excellence on caring for older adults. For more information or to support the Foundation's work, visit

American Geriatrics Society

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