Simulation program helps doctors prepare for difficult talks with patients

A new simulation training program helps doctors prepare for difficult conversations with patients and families.

Delivering bad news to patients is never easy, but a new simulation training program is helping doctors prepare for those difficult conversations.

Alive Hospice in Nashville offers simulations that allow doctors to act out how they would handle potentially tense or emotional conversations with patients.  These sessions allow physicians to practice how to offer clear, succinct messages, and handle these situations with empathy, according to an article from The Wall Street Journal.


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Practice scenarios include how to tell patients they’re terminally ill, how to deal with angry or upset family members and handle situations in which another physician may have offered a different diagnosis. Anna-Gene O’Neal, R.N., CEO of Alive Hospice, said she realized there was very little formal training to prepare doctors for these situations, and piloted the program with local clinicians before the full launch.

Jennifer Domm, M.D., a pediatric oncologist with HCA Healthcare in Nashville, said the feedback she received during the training helped ensure she wasn’t also passing on mistakes to trainees.

“There were times I didn’t necessarily mean to cut them off and I felt like maybe I was too quick to jump in,” Domm said. “It was reinforcing some of the things that I knew or would teach a mentee.”

RELATED: Lack of physician training still hampers end-of-life conversations

The aging population has made often-difficult conversations at the end-of-life more common. Despite the importance of these discussions, just 14% of doctors initiated such conversations.

One way to make these conversations easier is to have them earlier, perhaps even years before a patient needs to worry about end-of-life care. Doctors must be honest, and avoid softening the blow; focus instead on attainable goals instead of leaving hope for a miraculous cure. Communicate in ways patients understand, and don’t spend the entire conversation looking at a watch or clock.

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