A Communication Approach for Oncologists: Understanding Patient Coping and Communicating About Bad News, Palliative Care, and Hospice

Oncologists frequently approach patients to discuss difficult topics, such as bad news about cancer progression and referrals to palliative care and hospice. To communicate effectively in these difficult situations, it is helpful to assess what the patient knows and wants to know about their disease in general and, specifically, their prognosis. Although some patients fully accept the diagnosis of cancer and cope well, most patients struggle with how best to cope. This struggle often manifests itself with the patient vacillating between unrealistic hopes for longevity while also indicating prognostic awareness by talking about funeral plans. Although this coping is normal, it is difficult for most clinicians to interpret. This article presents a framework for understanding normal patient coping and gives specific examples of how to talk with these patients during difficult transitions, such as times of disease progression, and about referral to hospice and palliative care.

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Correspondence: Juliet Jacobsen, MD, DPH, Department of Medicine, Palliative Care Service, Massachusetts General Hospital, Founders 600, 55 Fruit Street, Boston, MA 02114. E-mail: jjacobsen@partners.org
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