Cultural beliefs about a patient's right time to die: An exploratory study

Henry S. Perkins, Josie D. Cortez, Helen P. Hazuda

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Background: Generalist physicians must often counsel patients or their families about the right time to die, but feel ill-prepared to do so. Patient beliefs may help guide the discussions. Objective: Because little prior research addresses such beliefs, we investigated them in this exploratory, hypothesis-generating study. Design and subjects: Anticipating culture as a key influence, we interviewed 26 Mexican Americans (MAs), 18 Euro-Americans (EAs), and 14 African Americans (AAs) and content-analyzed their responses. Main results: Nearly all subjects regardless of ethnic group or gender said God determines (at least partially) a patient's right time to die, and serious disease signals it. Yet subjects differed by ethnic group over other signals for that time. Patient suffering and dependence on "artificial" life support signaled it for the MAs; patient acceptance of death signaled it for the EAs; and patient suffering and family presence at or before the death signaled it for the AAs. Subjects also differed by gender over other beliefs. In all ethnic groups more men than women said the time of death is unpredictable; but more women than men said the time of death is preset, and family suffering signals it. Furthermore, most MA women-but few others-explicitly declared that family have an important say in determining a patient's right time to die. No confounding occurred by religion. Conclusions: Americans may share some beliefs about the right time to die but differ by ethnic group or gender over other beliefs about that time. Quality end-of-life care requires accommodating such differences whenever reasonable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1240-1247
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of General Internal Medicine
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2009


  • Attitude toward death
  • Cross-cultural comparison
  • End-of-life
  • Hospice
  • Terminal care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine


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