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Doctors need training on how to support grieving patients

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Curtin University researchers have found general practitioners (GPs) are in urgent need of up-to-date training and support in how to deal with bereaved patients.

As part of the study, GPs from Western Australia were interviewed to explore their understanding of grief, when to intervene, when to refer to specialist mental health supports, and education needs.

The study found that GPs had varied understandings of grief and were not sure whether their role included bereavement support, or if they should refer patients on for support. Some tended to think grief and depression were the same and some did not know where they could refer bereaved patients; most reported no or very limited grief education in their medical training.

The research also revealed that some GPs had a limited awareness of recent grief research and tended not to draw upon everyday research findings to inform their work.

Lead researcher Dr Moira O’Connor, Senior Research Fellow from Curtin’s School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, said these opposing views demonstrated a lack of clarity and consistency to the provision of bereavement care amongst GPs.

“There is little doubt that GPs have a critical role in exploring distress, including grief, and many people turn to them frequently for support and advice following bereavement,” Dr O’Connor said.

“Even though GPs are well-positioned to provide grief assistance to patients, or refer them to mental health professionals when appropriate, it is imperative that they have access to current information on current approaches to bereavement care.

“If this does not occur, many GPs will continue to rely on out-dated theories and understandings about grief, which may be detrimental to patients at a time when they truly need support.”

The results of the study recommend medical students receive training on how to support grieving patients, and those that are currently practising receive regular professional development in the arena.

“It is important that GPs have access to the latest information about grief so they can best support their bereaved patients. Without this education, some GPs will not realise the limitations of their expertise and will not be able to offer the best service and options for their patients, including referring them, if appropriate, to mental health specialists,” Dr O’Connor said.

The research was published in BMC Medical Education and can be accessed via

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