3 tips for delivering bad news to patients

By Aine Cryts

Oncologists have some of the most difficult discussions with patients in healthcare--as many as 20,000 such conversations over the course of their careers, one study estimated. Still, oncologists and other physicians receive little training in communicating with patients, reports Medscape.

"Many doctors recognize when their patients are expressing emotion, but they don't know what to do," James Tulsky, M.D., chair of the department of psychosocial oncology and palliative care at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and chief of the division of palliative medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told the publication.

Physicians need empathetic communication skills, which can be gained through coaching, awareness and practice, according to Tulsky.

The Medscape article provides three tips for oncologists and other physicians who have to deliver bad news:

  • Don't talk like a doctor: Patients don't have a wealth of medical knowledge, so communicate with patients in terms they understand. Pretend you're talking to your grandparents, Robert Arnold, M.D., director of palliative care services and director of the Institute for Doctor-Patient Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, told Medscape.
  • Don't look at your watch: While physicians' time with patients is brief, responding with comforting words doesn't have to take a lot of time, according to the article.
  • Don't try to soften the blow: Patients need to feel hopeful. But doctors shouldn't encourage patients to hope for an unlikely cure. Rather, spend the time focusing on more attainable goals that matter to the patient, such as feeling healthy enough to go to an upcoming family reunion, Arnold told the publication.

To learn more:
- read the study abstract
- check out the article