Doctors Need to Tell the Truth has made some death certificates available online to members, and reviewing these documents sheds light on the way people died within the past century. These documents, however, don’t cover the time when doctors managed to help patients live longer through medicines and machinery. In fact, many of these older death certificates come with the doctor’s admission, “He was dead when I arrived.”

Families then were as profoundly affected by sudden deaths as families today; however, lengthy illnesses held little hope for recovery in the past. Tuberculosis, disease created by insanitary conditions and illnesses such as pleurisy (often describing a lung infection such as pneumonia) all are conditions that belonged to the past in most cases throughout industrialized nations. Those conditions caused thousands of deaths with little hope for recovery.

Even with modern cures and treatments for diseases such as cancer today, every person is confronted with death sooner or later. In fact, a recent news article found that families preferred that doctors tell the truth when it comes to knowing about a loved one’s condition. While doctors worry about erasing hope for patients and their families, those same families stated that avoiding discussions about prognosis “was not an acceptable way to maintain hope.”

Timely discussions about prognosis of a loved one’s health helps to prepare the family for the possibility of death. The findings were based upon interviews with 179 family members of seriously ill intensive-care patients, all whom had been placed on a ventilator because they could not breathe on their own. The study supports the belief that doctors should help families “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

On the other hand, people who do not wish to talk about death and dying with their doctor should understand that major decisions often will then be made without their input. In cases where patients and family members know the truth, they can decide what they do and do not want done. They can decide whether they want aggressive treatment that might prolong life or whether they prefer to stop treatment, which could mean dying sooner but more comfortably. These decisions are part of the new focus on death care, a focus that allows people to die with dignity and that leaves the family with the feeling of some competency in a time of crisis.

Undoubtedly, some researchers may be able to read your death certificate in the future as they dig up information on how our culture lived. Hopefully none of those certificates will read, “Dead when I arrived” in the doctor’s notes. Instead, may it read, “died from old age,” a malady that is unavoidable for those who manage to live a long life.

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