Communicating bad news to your patients

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Giving bad news is not fun, but as a doctor, it is something you'll have to do from time to time. Here are some tips on how to do it.

Many people think doctors are coldhearted and curt. While there may be some that fit the criteria, the majority of physicians truly care about helping others and the lives entrusted to our hands. While we try to save and lengthen lives, sometimes this simply is not possible. One of the hardest tasks that a clinician must do, for many of is, is giving patients bad news.

It amazes me that patients are so varied in their response to this information. Some of them quite expected it and are fully prepared to face the outcome. Others are so shocked that they disbelieve the data. Some may stand steadfast in the face of the worst while others break down on great anguish. There is no wrong or right response and no way to predict how a patient will respond. The best start is to know that delivering bad news to a patient is going to change their life. They will have schedules to change and plans to make. They will be uncertain how they will tell their loved ones. We need to be open to any response and not minimize it. Not all people can be strong and to tell them to do so may trivialize what they are experiencing.

Watching the movies, it seems like doctors are often telling patients they have "six months to live," but this is far from the truth. Most often, we simply do not know how long a patient will live. And any doctor that has practiced for any length of time will share stories of patients whose survival has amazed us. No matter how bad the news, we need to give our patients some hope. And, we must not dash the hope our patients hold within themselves.