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Can Fam Physician. 2006 Dec;52(12):1574-5.

Primum non nocere: could the health care system contribute to suffering? In-depth study from the perspective of terminally ill cancer patients.

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Hôpital Notre-Dame, Centre hospitalier, l'Université de Montréal, Quebec, Canada.



To explore terminally ill patients' perceptions of their own suffering in order to describe, from these patients' perspective, some elements of health care providers' response to suffering.


Qualitative study using content analysis methods suited to a grounded theory approach.


Teaching and nonteaching hospital oncology clinics, palliative care services (both ambulatory and in-unit), and family practices.


Twenty-six patients diagnosed with terminal cancer.


Interviews were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim. Data from each interview were coded and categorized to identify and define themes. Themes were discussed and refined until those rating them agreed on them. Data were collected until saturation of emerging issues was reached.


In our health care system, patients are caught in a pervasive pattern of suffering avoidance, which in turn contributes to increased suffering. Health care services are perceived as a battlefield where physicians and patients are engaged in a losing struggle to ward off illness and death. Both physicians and patients engage in avoiding skepticism and muffling distress. The unavoidable avowal of powerlessness in the face of terminal disease is perceived as capitulation and therapeutic abandonment. Budgetary restraints and understaffing, along with a pervasive culture that implicitly denies death, produce an environment conducive to the avoidance of suffering. To counter this, health care practices that foster increased overlap and continuity between the spheres of oncology, palliative care, and family medicine seem worth developing.


The suffering of gravely ill patients might be hard to alleviate in the context of modern health care organizations. In some cases, health care delivery directly contributes to increased suffering. Providing support while also helping patients and their families to face upcoming harsh realities is a delicate balancing act that needs to be further explored.

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