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How to break the news when the news is cancer

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Booster Shots today tackles a difficult topic: What's the best way for a doctor to tell her patient he has cancer?

As it happens, the answer is probably intuitive: Share the news in person and in a private setting, and carefully explain the diagnosis and treatment options. Avoid giving the news over the phone, unless the patient already suspects a cancer diagnosis and has been waiting for days to hear the results.

Those are the conclusions of a National Cancer Institute and Columbia University study, which was based on a questionnaire given to 437 current and former cancer patients. Some 54 percent of the responders had received diagnoses in the doctor's office; 28 percent while in the hospital; and 18 percent by phone. Nearly half reported conversations with their doctors that lasted ten minutes or less, while almost a third reported conversations that did not include a discussion of treatment options.

Booster Shots reports:

When asked how satisfied they were with the way the cancer diagnosis was delivered, the average score on a scale from 0 to 100 (the most satisfied) was 73.5. Having another person present when the diagnosis was given did not seem to matter to most patients. However, where and how the news was delivered did matter. Patients who heard their diagnosis in person had much higher satisfaction scores than those who received the diagnosis over the phone. Conversations that took place in the doctor's office were rated higher by patients than talks that took place in an impersonal setting, such as a recovery room or radiology suite. Only a small percentage of patients reported very poor communication and lack of trust in their doctor. There were a few horror stories. "...my doctor at the time called me on Valentine's day to say I had a lesion in my chest.... He left this message on my home answering machine."

The study was released today by the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Photo by HollywoodPimp

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