BONITA SPRINGS, FLA. — Specialized checklists and colleague support prove crucial to psychiatrists when one of their patients in treatment for substance use disorder dies from an overdose, an expert said at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.
Much of the knowledge about how psychiatrists are affected by overdose deaths, and what can help them handle them better, is drawn from the literature on patient suicide – both types of death are sudden and unexpected, and both involve stigma and can isolate the patients’ families and providers, said, medical director of the Addiction Recovery Management Service at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“To our knowledge, the provider’s experience after an overdose has not been studied, and [there are] no practice guidelines to guide providers after an overdose death,” she said.
The overdose death of a patient is a particularly difficult matter because psychiatrists struggle with the emotional toll at the same time that they are dealing with fairly urgent details, including some with important legal implications, Dr. Yule said.
“Literature on the provider experience after suicide death indicates that providers are highly impacted by a patient’s suicide,” she said.
A key question is whether to contact the patient’s family. And generally, the answer should be yes.
“It’s really important to offer the option to meet with family members since these families may feel very isolated stigma as they grieve,” Dr. Yule said. What’s more, when families are not contacted by the physician, they might turn to litigation to try to seek information to help them understand their loss, she said.
In a survey of therapists whose patients died by suicide, 73% said they made contact with patient families and, in most instances, the family was not critical and expressed gratitude.
She emphasized the importance of knowing whether a patient’s family knew of the treatment. Because privacy laws extend after a patient’s death, providers cannot disclose treatment to families who did not already know, she said.
Also, she said, “communication with families should be focused on addressing the family members’ feelings and not the clinical details of the case.”
Most states have “apology statutes” that prevent expressions of sympathy – such as, “I’m sorry for your loss” – to be used as admission of liability, but providers should check the laws in their own states, she said.
If you have a colleague whose patient has overdosed or lost their lives to suicide, certain approaches are better than others, Dr. Yule said.
“It’s helpful when colleagues share their own experience with the suicide of a patient or patient who has overdosed and died,” she said. “What’s not helpful is the premature reassurance that the clinician has done nothing wrong. We may feel in these instances that we want to provide that premature reassurance, but it’s important not to do that because it doesn’t help providers resolve their grief.”
For solo providers, it’s especially important to be part of a physician network because they might otherwise not have the same support that those in larger organizations have, she said.
Beyond the grieving process, logistical details also need tending to, she said. The malpractice insurance carrier should be notified, even when there was no sign of a contentious interaction with the family. And, in her organization, the staff run down a checklist that includes not only calling the family and sending a condolence card, notifying staff promptly, and documenting the death, but also easily overlooked details like canceling future appointments in the scheduling system.
“You really don’t want a phone call going to the patient’s family with an appointment reminder after the patient is deceased,” Dr. Yule said. “These are the little details that you may not remember when you’re acutely grieving a patient’s death. And that’s why we feel it’s important to have a list.”
Dr. Yule reported no relevant disclosures.