How Doctors Break Bad News with Grace

Worse than long hours, physician burnout, and a demanding hospital floor is something else that makes working in medicine really trying on an individual. It takes a thick skin to not struggle with the turmoil that comes from delivering some tragic information to a patient and their loved ones. So how are physicians supposed to be able to break the bad news appropriately? It truly is an art.

If you’re anything like me, in times of crisis, my empathy goes off the charts. And, as much as I’d love to just cry with them, I can’t. Seeing a person’s life completely come crashing down on them is far from easy. And, it never really gets easier….you just kind of get used to it over time. And, eventually, you learn how to deal with it, too.

Over the course of a medical career, you can expect to have to give some detrimental information to thousands of people. You can expect to see a wide spectrum of emotions as well. Some will be silent and just in extreme shock. Some with begin weeping immediately. Others will become angry. Some physicians have had patients threaten to shoot them in extremely wild cases of disbelief and anger.

Here are some things new medical professionals should keep in mind for when they have to break bad news:

  • Always deliver news in a quiet, private spot.
  • Ask your patient if they are already aware of their condition. Then, ask permission before sharing the news with anyone else.
  • Don’t be “fancy.” Use easily understood terms and stray away from medical jargon.
  • Don’t be afraid to use silence during their emotional moments.
  • A patient or their family may feel that you’re not as compassionate due to the nature of the news, not the way you delivered it.
  • Instead of talking more to try to make the patient better, keep bad news brief and direct so that the patient is able to properly process it.
  • Ask the patient if they have any questions after you give them a moment to think about what you’re telling them.
  • Never destroy hope. No matter what the situation may be. Destroying hope not only will upset the patient, but it will also make their quality of life diminished as well.
  • Let them know you will not abandon them.
  • Give your patients a game plan. A list of instructions after they receive the bad news. This can include tips on how to tell their family, to write down any questions that come up before their next visit or phone call, and to prepare themselves for what treatments happen next.
  • Follow up with them a week later. Know that you’re thinking about them. You may be surprised with the improvement of their mood in that time. Sometimes the anticipation of bad news feels worse than actually receiving it.


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