3 Reasons Doctors Won’t Break Bad News

Russ Krengel Doctors & Hospitals, Patients

When you or your loved one received your diagnosis, did your doctor deliver the news in clear and easily understood terms? For many patients, the answer is no. While doctors almost uniformly agree that patients need clear and direct communication, they aren’t always trained to provide it.

No one enjoys delivering bad news, and medical professionals are no exception. But why, then, are so many doctors hesitant to break bad news in a straightforward way? And more importantly, are doctors working to be better at communicating with patients?

Read on to find out three of the common reasons why doctors won’t break bad news, and how medical professionals are working to improve their communication skills.

Patients Want Straightforward Communication

Too often, doctors will deliver bad news to patient cloaked in medical jargon, if they deliver it at all. As a result, patients are not well informed about their own health, often to their detriment. For example, many patients are not told the full extent of their diagnosis, such that some terminal patients believe their palliative treatments will cure them.

In contrast, when patients are asked what kind of communication they want from their medical professionals, they are extremely candid. Most patients would ask their doctors to set aside some time to speak with them about their diagnosis. They want their physician to be honest without being blunt and to provide sensitivity and support.

At the same time, some patients don’t want to know every aspect of their condition, and would prefer their doctor be honest, but stingy with the details. Doctors will need to establish clear lines of communication with their patients to know how to best meet their expectations. But what currently prevents many doctors from doing this?

3 Reasons Doctors Might Not Deliver Bad News

While each doctor has their own reasons for being reticent, we can point to a few key reasons your doctor may not want to be completely honest with you about your diagnosis. Here are three possible reasons why doctors don’t like to break bad news.

One possible reason why doctors are not equipped to deliver bad news is because death isn’t the desired outcome of treatment. Doctors are trained to save and preserve life, but they are not often prepared to handle the possible death of a patient.

Another reason doctors don’t like to break bad news is they aren’t properly trained to do so. Patients report doctors delivering bad news from the doorway of their hospital room and leaving almost immediately.

Physicians point to several key reasons why they feel ill prepared to deliver bad news to patients. For example, they feel unsure about how to deal with their patients’ emotional response. Additionally, some doctors feel a sense of responsibility for their patients’ outcomes and aren’t prepared to deal with their own emotional reaction.

Like most people, doctors don’t like giving bad news. Understandably, many physicians experience anxiety about giving patients difficult diagnoses. Some doctors feel a sense of responsibility for their patients’ treatment results and experience guilt.

Regardless of these reasons, doctors need to administer bad news effectively and compassionately. Fortunately, medical professionals have realized this and have begun training medical students in the delicate art of delivering bad news.

Better Trained Doctors, Happier Patients

When he received a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer, Dr. Ron Naito realized many doctors were lacking communication training. His experience, he discovered, was not unique and since receiving his diagnosis, he’s shared his story with medical students at Oregon Health and Science University to teach the next generation of doctors how to deliver bad news.

One of the techniques Dr. Naito advocates is known as the “ask-tell-ask” model. First, the doctor asks the patient what they know about their diagnosis, then they talk to the patient about their condition in straightforward, easily understood language. Last, they ask if the patient has any questions about what the doctor just explained.

For patients, this new model leads patients to have a clearer understanding of their diagnosis, which means they will be better able to prepare for what the future holds. They can adequately prepare for hospice or make arrangements for palliative care, if necessary.


Kindful Hospice Can Help Foster Open Communication

If you and your loved ones want to encourage open communication with your medical team, talk to us at Kindful Hospice. Our doctors can help you understand your diagnosis and our counseling professionals can guide you as you process every step of your treatment plan.

You can open lines of good communication between you and your medical professionals. Let our team help you and your family arrive at a better understanding of your heath care needs.