One of the hardest parts of being a doctor is breaking bad news to patients. There is currently little to no formal training for doctors to deliver bad news. This lack of guidance does not mean that you can’t train on your own! It’s important to value your patients’ emotions and reactions. As a doctor, patient relationships are very important and should be one of your biggest concerns. We’ve compiled a few tips on how to approach breaking bad news to patients. Read the list, make a plan, and feel more confident the next time you have to deliver bad news.
How to Approach Breaking Bad News to Patients
Prepare a Plan
The first thing that you can do when breaking bad news to patients is to prepare a plan beforehand. Make sure that you have all of the information about the patient and bring with you any charts or lab results that will helpful for the patient to see. Make sure that you set enough time aside for the conversation and any subsequent questions. You want to prepare an adequate space for the conversation. This should be somewhere quiet, where you will have no interruptions. Make sure that there will be minimal distractions for you and the patient. You should also have some idea of what you are going to say and how you will say it. This doesn’t have to be completely scripted, but you should prepare something. You can even practice with a colleague to make sure you’re saying the information how you want to.
Communication is Key
Make sure that you are communicating well with your patients and their families. The most important aspect of this communication is explaining medical-related information in ways they will understand. Don’t use medical jargon. Instead, try to break things down in simple terms. Don’t tiptoe around sensitive information. It will prolong the process and confuse patients. Instead, speak frankly and compassionately. Be patient and give the patients and their families time to process and react to the news. Be open to questions and honest in your answers. Make sure that you are repeating important information. Sometimes patients are so emotionally overwhelmed that they don’t’ hear everything you say. Summarize the main points of the conversation before you have to exit.
Remember that your patients have their own unique personalities and emotions. The best way to prepare for breaking bad news to patients is to get to know them. Make an effort to understand how they like to be spoken to. Once you know your patients on a deeper level, you will be able to cater your delivery to their person. You can even ask patients how they would like to be presented with information. Some patients may not want to see charts or reports. Some might want to look at these before hearing what you have to say. It all depends on the individual. The trick to delivering bad news is not to protect your patients’ feelings altogether. This cannot be avoided. However, you can relay bad news as compassionately as possible. In order to be compassionate, you need to prepare yourself emotionally. Not only are these conversations tough on patients, but they are also emotionally draining for doctors. To practice a high level of empathy, you need to give yourself emotional care. This could mean getting enough sleep or taking time to compose yourself before and after the conversation.
Patients have unique values and beliefs that may affect how they take bad news. If you stick to your values and express information with your own emotions, your patients will respond better. Do not assume the reactions of your patients. Be prepared for any sort of reaction or any question. Sometimes, people in shock ask very basic questions in order to bring the situation back to reality. Do not scoff at these simple questions. Take everything your patient says seriously. Do not dismiss any part of the conversation as trivial. Make sure to clarify a patient’s questions or reactions in order to best answer them or provide support.
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