The doctor in the grainy video is standing up, shifting uncomfortably as he spouts medical jargon that members of his patient’s family don’t understand.
When the reality sets in—that their father and husband is dead—the family’s intense emotions fluster the doctor. He awkwardly suggests an autopsy before rushing away to respond to his chirping beeper.
It is a low-budget training video that Andrew Epstein, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, uses often as he teaches medical students the art of breaking bad news.
“If you don’t balance out the physiological basis of disease and treatment of disease with the psychosocial side of medicine, you’re at risk” of alienating patients and their families, Dr. Epstein tells a group of students at a training session last week.
Doctors are trying new ways of solving an old problem—how to break bad news, which is as much a staple of doctors’ lives as ordering blood work and reviewing scans. One issue: Patients and their families, of course, aren’t all going to respond in the same way. Research into the effectiveness of training doctors in how to deliver bad news has turned up mixed results, with patients often not noticing any benefit.
“How much do people want to know? What techniques should be used? It’s a moving target,” says Dr. Epstein, who is also trained in palliative medicine.
Among pointers his students are taught: Always deliver bad news in a private, quiet area. Ask patients what they already know about their medical situation and if it is OK to share the news you have. Use silence to acknowledge sadness or other emotions. Avoid medical jargon. Speak clearly but sensitively.