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A grave undertaking

Call me morbid, but I’ve always rather enjoyed confirming death. This is largely because slapping a stethoscope on an obviously deceased person, adopting a suitable grave expression and pronouncing in my most authoritative voice that ‘this person is definitely dead’ (or words to that effect) all the while fighting the almost irresistible urge to recite everyone’s favourite Monty Python sketch, is quite a stress-free and untaxing way to spend 10 minutes.

So I was perplexed by the headline, ‘Out of hours provider threatens to stop verifying deaths’. But, according to the story, that’s precisely what Northern Doctors Urgent Care plans to do, citing budget restraints and – I quote – ‘an overriding duty to the living’.

The plan, as I understand it, would be for NDUC to contact the GP the next morning to do the necessary, on the basis that, let’s face it, these patients aren’t going anywhere in a hurry, are they?

Fair enough, but that’s more work for us, distress for grieving relatives etc and, the way communication is down my way, I might not get the nod until a week or so later – and while I’m all in favour of the diagnostic use of time, in the height of summer that could make these visits significantly less enjoyable.

On the other hand, wouldn’t this be a superb moment to highlight the often-overlooked fact that it’s not only doctors who can ‘confirm’ death? Yes, we have to do the death certificate, but ‘certifying’ isn’t the same as ‘confirming’. Rubber-stamping ‘you’re dead, mate’ on the unfortunate ex-patient can be performed by a paramedic or a nurse, too. So why not call one of them out, instead?

Better still, get the Department of Health to extend this qualification to others – pharmacists, for example, are constantly scratching around for something to do.

Or cut out the middleman and give the job to undertakers themselves, who should know a dead person when they see one.

If NDUC maintains its stiff opposition, the only option for hard-pressed Northern doctors is to cite our contractual entitlement to define where and when a patient should be seen, and ask the bereaved to bring the deceased up to the surgery. That should help clear the waiting room.

Dr Tony Copperfield is a GP in Essex. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @DocCopperfield