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Contacting relatives by phone to communicate the death of a patient


One of the most difficult parts of a health professional’s job is to break the news of a patient’s death to their next of kin. In a pandemic this job is made even harder, as you may be having to break this news via phone call rather than face-to-face.

The University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry explains that such phone consultations mean both parties lack non-verbal signals, which help convey the other person’s level of understanding, emotional state and empathy. Current evidence shows that the quality of communication has a long-term impact on healthcare workers’ psychological and physical well-being, so having to frequently break this news remotely might take a toll on your mental wellbeing.

To help, the Department has created a PDF guide and video which talk you through making such a difficult phone call. They break it down into seven steps, from ensuring the person you are speaking to is ready, through to establishing a plan for their loved one’s body. It also includes an optional section on advice you can offer if the person you have called is worried about breaking the news to children.

The PDF document is available below. If you’d prefer to listen to the information, it is also available in a video, which has optional English subtitles and lasts 6 and a half minutes.

The PDF guide is also available in Spanish, Urdu, Portuguese, Cebuano, and Tagalog. Click here to access these guides.
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University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry
The Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford

The Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford conducts research and teaches psychiatry to medical students.

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