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How to support patients after a bereavement

Retired GP Dr Godfrey Fowler explains how a new website can help GPs communicate better with bereaved patients

By Laura Montini

Retired GP Dr Godfrey Fowler explains how a new website can help GPs communicate better with bereaved patients

Throughout his many years as a GP in Oxford, Dr Godfrey Fowler frequently saw patients grieve over lost loved ones – but he could never relate to them so much until his own youngest son Adrian died.

For both Dr Fowler and his family, one of the best remedies for their grief was talking about Adrian.

‘I think one thing that helped us is that we decided we really had to take a positive approach to Adrian's death,' says Dr Fowler. ‘We had very good years with him.'

Fourteen years later Dr Fowler is still talking about his sorrow, through the website Healthtalkonline. The site was founded by best-selling GP author Dr Ann McPherson and has just launched a new section dedicated to personal experiences of bereavement due to a traumatic death.

On the website Dr Fowler explains how Adrian was seriously injured in July 1995 after falling as he tried to board a train. He died in hospital the next day. Adrian, 29, had just received his PhD in ecology and was travelling from Oxford to Scotland for a job interview.

One of the most difficult things Dr Fowler wrestled with was how quickly his active and healthy son was taken from him.

‘How you cope with that? It's of course an enormous blow, as anyone knows who's lost a child at any age,' he says.

The DIPEx Health Experiences Research Group at the University of Oxford – the group behind the website - has collected interviews from 40 people bereaved by traumatic death.

The new section aims to give comfort to those who have had these experiences as well as provide a way for GPs and other healthcare professionals to understand the perspective of those going through a difficult time.

‘I must say as a doctor one of the things that struck me at the time is I would have been an even better doctor if I had had some experience like this early on in my life,' Dr Fowler says.

‘I would have been more understanding, more empathetic when I was helping patients to cope with this sort of thing.'

During his years as a professor of general practice at Oxford, Dr Fowler said he found that young aspiring doctors tended to lack experiences that would allow them to feel empathy for patients.

‘My experience of a lot of medical students is that they had been brought up in environments where they hadn't personally had to face that,' he says

One way he coped with his own loss was to focus on something positive that came from it.

‘I may say one of the comforts for us is that Adrian was an organ donor and there were five or six people that benefited from the organ donation.'

Dr Fowler gave consent for Adrian's organs to be donated, and he believes that GPs should encourage their patients to carry organ donor cards, especially since the UK has a shortage of such donations.

Dr Fowler praised the work of Dr McPherson, who co-founded HealthTalkOnline through her work with the charity DIPEx. The two were colleagues at the same practice in Oxford in the 1970s.

‘I think she's done a lot of very good things, and one of the excellent things is for her to set up this programme,' he said.

He believes that Dr McPherson's own personal experiences - she is terminally ill with advanced pancreatic cancer - have helped give her empathy for others.

Dr Fowler hopes that sharing his story on the site will help others.

‘This is something that people can get on their computer and they can have the benefit of the experiences of other people who have been through the same sort of suffering,' he says. ‘This is an important resource.'

Dr Godfrey Fowler Visit the website

To see Healthtalkonline's new section of bereavement, please click here.

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