Sudden Unexpected Death in the Emergency Department: Caring for the Survivors

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To determine whether emergency department staff met the needs of the next of kin and close friends ("survivors") of patients dying in an emergency department and to assess the effectiveness of a program to improve care of survivors.


Mail survey before and after program implementation.


Emergency department of a tertiary care, adult teaching hospital.


Two groups of survivors, identified through a review of emergency department records of deaths during two 6-month periods. In the first group, surveyed in 1987, before program implementation, 26 (53%) of 49 responded; in the second group, surveyed in 1990, after program implementation, 40 (70%) of 57 responded.


A structured, multidisciplinary protocol for notifying next of kin of death and supporting the survivors was implemented. An educational program was provided to all emergency department staff. An information pamphlet was created and provided to survivors.

Main outcome measures

Questionnaire responses regarding the adequacy and timeliness of information provided, the support and actions by emergency department staff and the survivors' desire to be present during resuscitation efforts.


Comparison of responses before and after program implementation showed that adequate information was provided before notification of death in 32% and 83% of cases respectively (p 0.001), lengthy delays in receiving medical information occurred in 60% and 15% of cases (p 0.01), adequate medical information concerning the events of death was provided in 53% and 88% (p 0.05), the presence of emergency department staff was sufficient in 40% and 79% (p 0.01), survivors spent less than 2 hours in the emergency department in 50% and 81% (p 0.05), and survivors expressed a desire to be present during resuscitation efforts in 95% and 11% of cases (p 0.001).


The grievous experience of learning that a loved one has suddenly and unexpectedly died in the emergency department can be alleviated somewhat by a structured, multidisciplinary approach combined with staff sensitization and education.

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