Carolyn Y. Johnson June 6, 2016
The sobering thing doctors do when they die.

In "How Doctors Die," a powerful essay that went viral in 2011, a physician described how his colleagues meet the end: They go gently. At the end of life, they avoid the mistakes — the intensive, invasive, last-ditch, expensive and ultimately futile procedures that many Americans endure until their very last breath.

"Of course, doctors don’t want to die; they want to live. But they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits," Ken Murray wrote.

A new study reveals a sobering truth: Doctors die just like the rest of us.

"We went into this with the hypothesis we were going to see very large differences," said Stacy Fischer, a physician who specializes in geriatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. "What we found was very little difference to no difference."

The study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society examined 200,000 Medicare beneficiaries to bring some hard data to the question. They found that the majority of physicians and non-physicians were hospitalized in the last six months of life and that the small difference between the two groups was not statistically significant after adjusting for other variables. The groups also had the same likelihood of having at least one stay in the ICU during that period: 34.6 percent for doctors vs. 34.4 percent for non-doctors. In fact, doctors spent slightly more time in the ICU than non-doctors, the study found — not enough time to signify a clinical difference, but suggesting that, if anything, doctors may be using medicine more intensively.

In one regard, doctors seemed to die slightly better than non-doctors: 46.4 percent of doctors used hospice during their last six months compared with 43.2 percent of non-doctors. Doctors also spent nearly 2½ more days in hospice than non-doctors.

But these differences are small, and overall, they are far from the powerful mythology that doctors are dying better than the rest of the populace.