Oncologists Enroll in Classes on How to Tell Cancer Patients Bad News

Beth Brophy Health Guide
  • I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over the report today in the New York Times about oncologists enrolled in a class on telling cancer patients bad news. It strikes me as both funny and tragic that these doctors, who deal with death on a daily basis, need a $1.4 million grant and the help of hired actors to figure out how to be empathetic. The article also contained a sentence that is one of my pet peeves: “… caring for the patients who fail these treatments.” It has always seemed to me that it is the treatments that have failed the patients, not vice versa.

    On the other hand, there’s good reason to applaud anything that improves how some tactless doctors deliver bad news, even if the price tag sounds a tad high. I, and my loved ones, have been on the receiving end of some real clunkers. A few of my favorite examples (as well as the one recounted my recent blog, Just Another Check-up, Almost) :
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    A friend, a young mother in her 30s, was undergoing various tests for multiple symptoms such as dizziness, blurred vision, etc. Before all the information was in, a brain surgeon told her, ”If I were you, I’d get my affairs in order in the next three weeks.” It turned out she has multiple sclerosis, not a deadly brain tumor, and now 11 years later, has no reason to be planning her own funeral.

    The doctor who complained to my mother, after my siblings and I were gathered in a waiting room in a Florida hospital -- we had been told that my 90-year-old stepfather had a 50 percent chance of surviving his surgery -- that he didn’t appreciate being “accosted” by our family when he came to tell us the news that my stepfather was still alive.

    Or the young doctor who told family members to designate one point person whom he would talk to, as he was too busy and important to repeat himself.

    The NYT article estimated that over the course of a career, an oncologist will tell patients bad news about 20,000 times. Apparently practice doesn’t make perfect. And it was not especially heartening to learn that only about 5 percent of practicing oncologists had any form of communication training. So I can appreciate how these workshops in bedside manner and manners are sorely needed.

    Bring on the actors and the sensitivity training!

Published On: January 12, 2006