Give It to Me Straight Doc

Delivering bad news isn't easy, but it's best for a patient's mental health.

By Camille Chatterjee, published on January 1, 1999 - last reviewed on November 7, 2006

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.