Researchers at Aristotle University in Greece have found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that telling a (pretend) patient that they had cancer was more stressful for a doctor than concealing the diagnosis. Doctors who don’t tell the truth, they suggest, may be doing so to keep control of the situation and avoid their and their patients’ emotional reactions.
The stress of having ‘bad news’ conversations can lead some doctors to put them off, or to deliver news in a less-than-optimal way, says Dr Laura-Jane Smith, a respiratory registrar in training who works in London.
Finding the right time and place to have conversations about things such as progression of disease can be challenging, and patients react in all sorts of ways. “Some people will want to have that conversation when they realise that they’re unwell. Some people will strongly say, ‘I’ve been in hospital before, there’s no way you’re sending me to [intensive care],” says Smith. Some just don’t want to know.
There’s also the danger of shooting the messenger. Katherine Sleeman, medical doctor and lecturer at King’s College London’s Cicely Saunders Institute, quotes from a study that found that patients perceived doctors as better communicators when they gave a more optimistic view of palliative (non-curative) chemotherapy. “It seemed as though you can inform patients that a disease is incurable but at the expense of the relationship with them, which is fascinating,” she says.
The demands that patients and families put on doctors – to find a balance between honesty, truth and hope, to be human, yet not too human, to know everything, even the unknowable – add to the stress.
“I think we find it difficult to admit that we don’t know,” says Dr Stephen Barclay, Senior Lecturer in General Practice and Palliative Care at the University of Cambridge, “because patients come to us, and we look to ourselves to be people who investigate, make decisions, make a diagnosis and have an action plan.”
He thinks that doctors find it quite emotionally difficult to acknowledge uncertainty – something born of not the doctor’s incompetence but more the unpredictability and uncertainty of so much of medicine, particularly the later stages of many diseases. “It is frightening. No one ever enjoys having these sort of conversations,” he says.
It takes a lot of conversations to find someone who can tell me – in full-colour, human, non-clinical terms – what it’s actually like to have to, on a daily basis, tell people that they’re seriously ill. Finding doctors to talk to isn’t the problem. Our conversations start promisingly enough. But somewhere along the line, everything comes through a professional filter. They become less clear, less direct, obscured in medical language, cloaked in the self-preserving bubble of the passive voice or generalised to just any doctor’s experience. “You can become upset by it but…”
For my sister, a doctor for eight years, it isn’t so much telling the bad news that stays with her, but the small, seemingly insignificant things that went along with it: noticing a pristine newspaper, unread, on the bedside locker of a patient who had just died, despite attempts at cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Finding a cheque waiting to be paid in in the wallet of a man who’d had a fatal accident.
These things – the physical manifestations of the nearly-done, not-done, never-to-be-done – seem to resonate. Unopened birthday presents, cancelled holidays, unworn clothes: all symbols of a life ending prematurely, of potential diminishing, of a future fading. They’re what remain after the practicalities of dealing with a patient and their relatives are long forgotten.
You do what you can to process it, one doctor says. Review what has happened from a medical management point of view: analyse, rationalise, conclude. Did we do everything we could? Would we do anything differently next time? Have a cup of tea, splash your face with cold water, have a cigarette, get on with the next patient.
Then your shift ends.
Self-medication takes a variety of forms. For some doctors, it’s straight to the pub. One (teetotal) doctor’s prescription: “Go home, order a pizza, eat lots of ice cream, sit in front of the TV and watch trash.” Another has a friend who’s also a doctor, and they’ve agreed that either of them can call the other at any time and vent.
Annabel Price, Consultant in Liaison Psychiatry at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, says that some doctors are more vulnerable to being affected emotionally by breaking bad news than others. This may be because they are struggling with bereavement or mental health issues in their own lives. Or it may happen if there’s a patient or medical case that they relate to particularly closely.
Doctors need to be resilient, but so do the organisations that they work in. “You would hope that if a situation is very difficult for an individual… the team then would help them to manage it, either by allowing them to step back or by providing them with extra support to be able to do that,” says Price.
“I would be very optimistic if I said that that works 100% well every time and that all teams function in that way, but that’s the ideal that I think we should be working to: recognising that doctors are people, just as much people as our patients are, fallible humans who have our strengths and weaknesses, and weak points and struggles, just like anybody else.”
Dedicated services do exist for doctors to get help with their mental health, for example, but are those in need willing or able to find and use them?
One paper, advising junior doctors on how to look after their mental health, identifies three challenges for doctors seeking medical help. The first is stigma, including the fear that seeking help will lead to their fitness to practice medicine being challenged. The second is the idea that doctors can feel that they are somehow “letting the side down” if they need time off. The last is barriers to care. “Doctors do not make good patients,” the authors write. “Typically they do not follow their own healthcare advice, they self diagnose and self medicate, and they present late after ‘corridor consultations’. Once unwell, doctors are often reluctant to consult a general practitioner (even if registered) or to take time off work.”
Moreover, healthcare systems are far from perfect. Resources – including the time, space and supportive colleagues conducive to productive, healthy working lives – are often limited.
I asked Twitter if doctors need, and can get, support when breaking bad news. An Australian doctor summed it up: “Can’t even get time at work to go to the toilet while working in [the emergency department], let alone support when breaking bad news”.