Monday, January 14, 2008

Listen to Cancer Patients


For many people, this diagnosis is as scary as it gets. At once, their world -- their future -- shifts tectonically. Yet when cancer patients express their fears and other negative emotions, their doctors often don't listen closely enough.

A Duke study, published in the Dec. 20, 2007, issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, concludes that physicians need to learn to demonstrate greater empathy in communicating with cancer patients -- and medical training should be adjusted to provide the necessary skills.

This cautionary tale for physicians, detailed in a medical center news release, has been reported widely in the media. See New York Times story from Jan. 8, 2008.

Effective communication between oncologists and their patients, especially those with advanced cancer, is essential to good care, says James Tulsky, M.D., director of Duke's Center for Palliative Care and senior investigator on the study (photo above).

"However, many oncologists have never been trained to respond to patients' emotions and concerns in a matter that shows their empathy," he says. "By teaching physicians to use explicit emphatic language when communicating with distressed patients, we have a chance to improve patient quality of life."

Toward this goal, the researchers produced personalized CD-Roms for the doctors in their study that highlight examples of when the clinicians responded emphatically to their patients, as well as examples of areas for improvement.

This study seems to dovetail with other research I’ve read about which suggests that when people first hear their cancer diagnosis, they immediately stop hearing anything else their physicians are saying.

Clearly, communicating about cancer is hard for everyone -- and any clues about how to make matters better are sorely needed.

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