I remember back in my second or third semester of school we had a professor give a guest lecture on “delivering bad news to patients.” As future physicians, we are going to have to be the ones to give bad news to patients. There is no easy way to do it – but it is something we must learn and understand how to handle as best as possible. “Bad news” could mean anything in medicine – it could lead to an incurable diagnosis, it could mean their loved one has just passed away during surgery… “bad news” could mean hundreds of different things. So, how are we supposed to handle it? How are we supposed to break the bad news to our future patients?
- Deliver bad news clearly and straight-forward: Don’t beat around the bush when trying to tell a patient something negative. It’s important that we are straight-forward with news and diagnoses because we do not want the patient to misunderstand us. We also do not want to lead the patient on into thinking that everything is okay by making useless small talk, and then dropping a bomb on them with the news we have to share.
- Show empathy: Let the patient know that you are there for them and that you are willing to do whatever it takes to help them through this difficult time. Show your support and compassion. Do NOT tell the patient you understand how they feel, or that this is something that happened to you before. You don’t need to make it personal, but you should show empathy towards the patient and let them know they have your full support.
- Save the details and questions for later: After hearing bad news, the patient is most likely going to go into shock and not hear anything else you have to say. Patients are going to react in many different ways, so it’s best to give the patient the news and let them process it on their own. Giving them time is the best support you can give. Questions and details can be saved for a later date when the information has been processed, and the patient can hear you out.