Every job has its less-than-desirable tasks. For doctors, one of those tasks is telling patients things they do not want to hear. It could be anything from breaking the bad news of cancer to reminding patients that they are only hurting themselves by not following the advice given in the office. Regardless of what needs to be said, doctors can be made quite uncomfortable having to say it.
Things are not any easier on the locum just because he or she doesn’t have long-standing relationships with patients. You might even say it is more difficult on them for this reason. But they still need to say what needs to be said. Below is a collection of tips, gleaned from various sources, for telling patients things they do not want to hear.
Practice Honesty Above All
The reason doctors tell people things they don’t want to hear is so that those patients can make the best decisions about their healthcare. But here’s the thing: patients cannot make fully informed decisions if their doctors are not completely honest with them. Therefore, doctors need to practice honesty above all else.
Locums need to be particularly careful about honesty in as much as they already have an unfamiliar doctor-patient relationship to overcome. A patient given any reason to mistrust a doctor will not benefit from what that doctor has to say as much as would otherwise be possible.
Speak Clearly and Plainly
Next, doctors should speak clearly and plainly with their patients. No doctor speak, no jargon, and no complicated words and phrases that patients are not likely to understand. They need to know the critical information in the simplest possible terms so that they can understand and process it.
Give Patients Time to Respond
Breaking bad news about a serious illness requires an extra measure of care from the doctor. In such cases, doctors should give patients time to respond to what they’ve heard. This means not breaking the news and then ushering patients out the door. Give them at least a few minutes to try to make sense of what they have just heard.
Giving patients time to respond can create an uncomfortable tension. But for the benefit of the patient, it is best for the doctor to simply work through it. It is better to be a little bit uncomfortable then to get patients out the door before they have had time to respond.
Be Prepared to Answer Questions
Most cases of telling patients what they don’t want to hear are met with at least a few questions. One of the worst things a doctor can do – particularly a locum – is to go into a patient conference unprepared for the questions that might arise. Doctors should try to anticipate what patients might ask so they can be compared with the right answers.
Be Prepared for Resistance
Hand-in-hand with preparing for questions is preparing to meet with some kind of resistance. This is especially true in cases where doctors have to remind patients to heed the advice they have been given. Resistance can come in multiple forms ranging from anger to sarcasm and denial.
Telling patients things they don’t want to hear is part and parcel of being doctor. It goes with the territory. If there is anything positive about bad news, then it’s the fact that those patients willing to receive it openly and then act upon it are going to be better off than those who don’t. So it really pays off when a doctor learns the skill of breaking bad news in a way that encourages a willing acceptance by the patient.