Learning to give bad news: the patient’s perspective

After Suzanne Leigh’s daughter, Natasha, died from a brain tumor, her mother wrote an essay about “What I wish I’d said to my child’s doctor.”

One of her pieces of advice was to ban junior doctors from sitting in while sensitive, emotional conversations took place. She wrote, “When emotions are high and we are at our most vulnerable, we don’t want to be politely scrutinized as if we were lab rats – even if it means that those in training might lose out on a one-of-a-kind lesson in patient-doctor communications.”

My last two blog posts were about training doctors to deliver bad news and the benefits (or not) of scripting to help them through a difficult conversation. Where are patients supposed to fit into this? Suzanne raises the human side of the medical teaching process – that patients and families are often drafted into being practice cases for students, many times willingly but sometimes with awkwardness, reluctance or downright resentment.

It’s not an easy balance, though, between respecting the needs of patients and families at a supremely vulnerable time while creating opportunities for students to learn and gain skills. And it’s this balancing act that touched off a contentious online debate after Suzanne’s essay was reposted late last week on Kevin, MD.

It started with a medical student who wanted to make it known that although the patient’s and family’s wishes should come first, observation is one of the ways that students learn the difficult art of giving bad news.

It is not about scrutinizing the parents during the conversation; rather it is about seeing our mentors perform an essential skill that we will very shortly have to put into practice on our own. When patients and families are comfortable allowing us in on those conversations, we are immensely grateful, as it is really the only way we can learn an immensely difficult skill.

A blanket ban on junior doctors? One commenter called it “tantamount to saying ‘I want my child to benefit from the superior care that is available in a teaching hospital, but I think an important aspect of that teaching should be abolished, since it made me personally feel uncomfortable.’”

As you might guess, the discussion started to get lively.

Knowing when to refrain from judging and graciously leave the room is a learning experience too, wrote one commenter.

Should the need for training ever outweigh a family’s discomfort with having an audience during a difficult conversation? wondered someone else. Is it fair to lay guilt on people for saying no to the presence of a doctor-in-training in the room?

Another commenter, apparently a doctor, suggested that a family who requests privacy during one of these conversations “probably has a lower level of coping skills.” (What? Maybe privacy is just their preference.)

I’m not sure there ever can be a consensus on the right way to do this, other than that it’s a tough balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of society, in this case the value of a doctor who has learned to communicate well and skillfully when bad news is involved.

What’s consistently missing is the voice of patients and families themselves.

Doctors in training may learn from observing more experienced clinicians during a difficult conversation but this is only one side of the transaction. How was it perceived by the patient and family? After all, what seems empathetic to an observer might not meet the patient’s definition of empathetic. On the other hand, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the art and skill of delivering bad news, so how do doctors learn to tailor what they say and how they say it without unintentionally giving offense?

Medical students might learn a lot from patients and families about giving bad news – what makes the situation worse, what makes it better. If we need a better balance between real-life training opportunities for students vs. allowing difficult conversations to belong to the patient and family, why not invite patients into the education process instead of debating their obligation to do so?

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