Doctors are notoriously bad at delivering that tough message: You are going to die.
But a new study shows a short training program might help them communicate better about terminal cancer, giving the patient emotional support and involving his or her significant others.
The work, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, assesses the first program designed specifically to improve doctors' communication skills when faced with patients whose disease turns out to be fatal.
Doctors often try to avoid straight talk about their patients' outlook in this situation, notes Tanja Goelz, of the University Medical Center in Freiburg, Germany, and her colleagues.
Yet most patients and their families want realistic information, the researchers write. So they developed a training program involving a 1.5-day communication workshop and a 30-minute coaching session to improve the situation.
To see if the program made a difference, they first videotaped 41 doctors doing consultations with actors pretending to be sick patients. Half of those doctors, chosen at random, then underwent training, while the others didn't.
After five weeks, those doctors who had been trained in communications skills were better at explaining the transition to end-of-life care, at communicating well in general and at asking about the actor-patients' families.
The researchers conclude that their training program, which they have dubbed COM-ON-p, "is quite short, feasible and effective."
"The concept seemed to be attractive," they add, "because we had a high recruitment rate."