Give It to Me Straight Doc

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One of the toughest tasks doctors face is breaking bad news to a patient. But research shows that patients can handle the truth—and it may help their mental health.

Afaf Girgis, Ph.D., acting director of the New South Wales Cancer Council's Cancer Education Research Program (CERP) in Newcastle, Australia, points out that cancer victims report undue anxiety when doctors withhold facts about their condition. Most people, they say, cope best with their illness if they know exactly what to expect.

To ease doctor-patient communications, Girgis and CERP have developed a set of guidelines, approved by health care workers and patients alike, for conveying poor prognoses. Among them:

  • Give information simply and honestly. Avoid euphemisms. If the diagnosis is cancer, say cancer.
  • Let patients express their feelings. Giving patients time to cry or fume alleviates anxiety down the road.
  • Culture counts. Remember that race, religion and social background all influence a patient's reaction to medical news; be sensitive to these differences.

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