Physician Views and Response to Patients' Near-Death Experience (NDE)
1/27/02

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Physician Views and Response to Patients' Near-Death Experience (NDE):
A Survey

Dr. Jeff, M.D.
Judith Boss , Ph.D.

             This study is a survey of the medical staff of a single large institution regarding physician views and responses to patients� near-death experience (NDE).  A survey of this type has not been previously reported.  An Internet survey form was developed containing three demographic questions and 18 questions pertinent to NDE (www.rooj.com/survey.htm).  Notice of this voluntary survey was e-mailed to the attention of approximately 550 physicians and chiropractors on the faculty of Brown University School of Medicine ( Providence , Rhode Island , U.S.A. ) on October 2, 2001 .  A total of 18 responded to the survey.  Of these 18, 17 were physicians and one was a chiropractor.  The 17 physicians responding represented approximately 3% of all physicians contacted.  The very low percentage of physician response is not unusual among surveys of this type.  Survey questions generally allowed both multiple-choice and narrative responses as appropriate.  The survey multiple-choice questions� default answers were set to �No response� to minimize false positive and false negative responses.  A portion of the final results of this survey is presented.

            It must be emphasized that the results of this study cannot be considered representative of the attitudes of physicians in general regarding NDE.  A very low percentage of physicians contacted completed the survey.  Those responding almost certainly had significantly different attitudes regarding NDE than physicians in general.  The survey involved only a single institution with a medical school environment that may not represent attitudes of physicians outside an academic environment.  Physicians practicing in other areas of the country or representing a different mix of medical specialties may have different attitudes toward NDE.  Additionally, the Internet survey form methodology may be unfamiliar to some physicians potentially biasing the results.  It also must be emphasized that any generalizing statements presented herein must be considered highly tentative and unproven.  Certainly more research regarding physician attitudes toward NDE is needed.

            In spite of the aforementioned significant study limitations, the results are interesting.  None of the respondents personally experienced a NDE.  A Gallup Poll in 1992 led to an estimate that 13 million adult Americans may have experienced a NDE, suggesting approximately 4% of the United States adult population may have a personal history of NDE.  Given this prevalence of NDE, it is somewhat surprising that out of approximately 550 physicians surveyed, none responded with a history of personal NDE.  We would have expected at least some physicians to be NDErs, and thus more likely to respond to a survey regarding NDE.  This raises the possibility that physicians might have a lower prevalence of NDE than the United States adult population as a whole.  It is also possible physician NDErs may have less interest in sharing and interacting with others regarding the experience than non-physician NDErs.  Another possibility is that the prevalence of NDE is lower than was estimated by the aforementioned Gallup Poll.

            Those responding had been practicing an average of 20 years following completion of medical school suggesting they had considerable medical practice experience.  When asked �Have you ever talked to any patient as part of your professional practice who told you about his/her NDE?� responses were Yes: 6 (33%), No: 11 (61%) and Uncertain: 1 (6%).  It is notable that even in this select group, only a minority of physicians has encountered patients who shared their NDEs.  This suggests the great majority of physicians in general may not have heard of NDE from their patients� personal experience.  When asked both �How comfortable was the patient(s) in sharing their NDE with you?� and �How comfortable you were discussing the NDE with the patient(s)?�, both questions had 6 responses of �Very comfortable� and 12 responses of �No comment�.  The consistent high level of comfort in sharing NDE experiences among both the physicians and patients is somewhat surprising.  We suspect this level of comfort in both sharing and listening to the NDE experience occurs in a small percentage of NDErs and physicians. 

In our NDE research, we have encountered a number of NDErs who describe unsatisfactory or unpleasant experiences when they tried to share their NDE with their physicians.  It is likely the six survey respondents who were very comfortable hearing about the NDE both knew about and respected NDE prior to hearing about their patients� NDEs.  One respondent wrote �I feel at ease discussing these experiences, and actually try to help the patient use the experience to help learn to experience greater peace in his or her life.�  If there were a higher level of comfort in both sharing and listening to NDEs, perhaps far more NDEs would be shared. 

            When asked, �Which of the following best describes your view of NDE (please check or uncheck all that apply).  NDEs are:� the responses were:

 

Hallucinations

 

 

 

3

 

 

Dreams

 

 

 

 

3

 

 

Caused by endogenous drugs ("brain chemistry")

 

7

 

 

Caused by exogenous drugs (externally administered)

 

2

 

 

Caused by physiological changes brought on by extreme stress

 

8

 

 

Suggestive of mental disorder

 

 

0

 

 

An experience of a higher dimension/reality

 

8

 

 

A spiritual encounter with a divine force

 

6

 

 

Unknown

 

 

 

 

4

 

 

 

            To the question �Have you discussed NDE with other physician(s) at any time under any circumstances?� responses were: Yes: 6 (33%) and No: 12 (67%).  Even in this select group of respondents with an average of 20 years of medical practice, NDE is clearly an uncommon topic of informal discussion.  This suggests physicians in general are unlikely to have discussed NDE at any time with other physicians.

            When asked, �What do you think is the most common view of other physicians regarding NDE?� responses were:

 

Hallucinations

 

 

 

 

 

5

 

 

 

Dreams

 

 

 

 

 

3

 

 

 

Caused by endogenous drugs ("brain chemistry")

 

 

3

 

 

 

Caused by exogenous drugs (externally administered)

 

 

2

 

 

 

 

8

 

 

 

Suggestive of mental disorder

 

 

 

 

0

 

 

 

An experience of a higher dimension/reality

 

 

3

 

 

 

A spiritual encounter with a divine force

 

 

 

2

 

 

 

Unknown

 

 

 

 

 

7

 

 

 

 

            We suspect this is a more accurate representation of general physician attitude toward NDE than the previously noted respondents� personal views of NDE.  Differences in responses between the preceding two tables are further evidence that the respondents� attitudes are not typical of the attitudes of physicians in general toward NDE.  The infrequency that physicians discuss NDE among themselves must be borne in mind in considering responses to this question. The most common expected view of other physicians is that NDE is �Caused by physiological changes brought on by extreme stress� (8), followed by the response of �Unknown� (7) and �Hallucinations� (5).  The choices suggesting NDE is a valid spiritual experience are uncommonly selected with responses of  �An experience of a higher dimension/reality� (3) and �A spiritual encounter with a divine force� (2) selected infrequently.  It is interesting to note that no respondent selected the option of �Suggestive of mental disorder� as their own view or expected other physicians� view of NDE.

            When asked, �Should information on NDEs be part of the education of medical students and physicians?� responses were: Yes: 7 (39%), No: 5 (28%) and Uncertain: 6 (33%).  When asked about a variety of methods of teaching medical students, the top three choices were: �Optional reading� (7), �NDE experiencers personally sharing their account� (6) and �Seminars� (5).  Any efforts to teach NDE in a medical school may be resisted by those doubting the validity of NDE, as expressed by one respondent who wrote �That anyone supposes there is a fragment of scientific information to be gained by �studying� NDE is disturbing, and symptomatic of the pseudoscience that infests the study of man�s mind.�

            There is some interest in NDE research among the respondents.  When asked, �Would you be interested in participation in NDE research projects?� responses were: Yes: 4 (22%), No: 11 (61%), Uncertain: 2 (11%) and No response: 1 (6%).  One respondent wrote �NDEs are only one form of spiritual or �higher power� experiences that patients have that would be useful to study.  Events/experiences related to pre-diagnosis, diagnosis, treatment, relapses, etc. would all be valuable to study.�  It is noteworthy that four respondents (22%) expressed an interest in participating in NDE research projects.  This suggests a large number of physicians nationwide may have an interest in NDE to the degree they would be interested in participating in NDE research.  If a mechanism could be found to identify and contact physicians with such an interest, NDE research might be greatly expanded.

            One study co-investigator (Dr. Jeff, M.D.) is a physician and NDE researcher.  Dr. Jeff�s commentary is as follows:  At least three physicians have submitted their experience to my www.nderf.org (Near Death Experience Research Foundation) web site.  All of them were greatly affected by the experience, and had no doubts about its validity and significance.  I think most physicians (as with other professionals) are quite busy with their professional as well as personal lives, and have less exposure to media presentations about NDE than the general public.  Probably the great majority of physicians have not encountered NDE experiences shared by their patients and have not discussed NDE with other physicians.  Thus, physicians in general probably have little exposure to NDE and little factual information to make an informed decision about its validity.  IANDS is aware of the need to present physicians and medical students with factual information regarding NDE and is actively pursuing this goal.

If any readers have any comments regarding this survey and study, or have ideas on how this survey could be provided to other medical staff groups, please e-mail us at (Dr. Jeff, M.D.) or JUDITHB@prodigy.net ( Judith Boss , Ph.D.).  We are quite interested in conducting this survey at other medical schools or with other large physician groups.  If anyone would be able to assist us in any way in this endeavor, please let us know.

            I thank Bruce Greyson, M.D. who reviewed the survey and provided helpful comments.  Thanks also to Jody Long for her editorial assistance.


Copyright1999 by Dr. Jeff and Jody Long

 


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