Journal of Clinical Oncology: June 29, 2015
Purpose The delivery of bad news by oncologists to their patients is a key moment in the physician-patient relationship. We performed a systematic review of qualitative studies (a metasynthesis) that focused on the experiences and points of view of oncologists about breaking bad news to patients.
Methods We searched international publications to identify relevant qualitative research exploring oncologists’ perspectives about this topic. Thematic analysis, which compensates for the potential lack of generalizability of the primary studies by their conjoint interpretation, was used to identify key themes and synthesize them. NVivo qualitative analysis software was used.
Results We identified 40 articles (> 600 oncologists) from 12 countries and assessed their quality as good according to the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme (CASP). Two main themes emerged: the patient-oncologist encounter during the breaking of bad news, comprising essential aspects of the communication, including the process of dealing with emotions; and external factors shaping the patient-oncologist encounter, composed of factors that influence the announcement beyond the physician-patient relationship: the family, systemic and institutional factors, and cultural factors.
Conclusion Breaking bad news is a balancing act that requires oncologists to adapt continually to different factors: their individual relationships with the patient, the patient’s family, the institutional and systemic environment, and the cultural milieu. Extending the development of the ability to personalize and adapt therapeutic treatment to this realm of communications would be a major step forward from the stereotyped way that oncologists are currently trained in communication skills.