Improving Communication Skills Helps Oncologists Support Patients

June 19, 2014
Janet Colwell
Janet Colwell

Oncologists who participated in communication workshops improved their ability to talk with patients about their prognoses and provide emotional support, a recent study found.

Oncologists who participated in communication workshops improved their ability to talk with patients about their prognoses and provide emotional support, a recent study found.

In the study, researchers observed simulated consultations to assess the communication skills of 30 oncologists who were then randomly assigned to an intervention group, where they took a 2-day communication skills training (CST) workshop, or a control group. In a follow-up survey, patients who met with an oncologist who took the CST were significantly less depressed than those in the control group. The results were published online June 9 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The study is the first to show that CST for oncologists can improve cancer patients’ psychological distress, the authors said. They attributed the positive results, in part, to using the SHARE model-Setting up a supportive environment (S); considering how to deliver the bad news (H); discussing additional information or answering patients’ questions (A); and providing reassurance and empathizing with the patients’ emotions (RE).

“The program particularly emphasized the RE component because it has been shown to be the most important for patients and also to be one of the most difficult communication skills for oncologists,” the authors wrote.

During the 2-day workshop, participants engaged in 8 hours of simulated role-playing and discussions along with lectures. Role-playing scenarios focused on delivering bad news to patients about diagnosis of advanced cancer, recurrence of cancer, or cessation of anticancer treatment.

The workshop covered well-established communication practices, such as maintaining eye contact and explaining clinical findings in lay language, as well as new empathic skills, including the use of silence and accepting a patient’s expression of emotions.

Notably, adding new elements to patient consultations, such as using a preamble or checking on a patient’s understanding and assimilation of news about their illness, did not prolong office visits, the authors said. This suggests that reducing patients’ stress can be achieved without increasing demands on oncologists’ time.

Results from the study indicate that CST training may be beneficial for all caregivers working in oncology practices and cancer centers, the authors noted.

“This work shows that communication skills that comply with patient preferences can be taught to oncologists, and their use decreases patient distress,” they wrote. “Our study might thus provide encouragement and a direction for future research in the application of CST for more health professionals in oncologic practice to help oncologists deal with unrecognized distress among patients diagnosed with cancer.”