End-of-Life Care: Guidelines for Patient-Centered Communication


When patients are diagnosed with cancer, primary care physicians often must deliver the bad news, discuss the prognosis, and make appropriate referrals. When delivering bad news, it is important to prioritize the key points that the patient should retain. Physicians should assess the patient’s emotional state, readiness to engage in the discussion, and level of understanding about the condition. The discussion should be tailored according to these assessments. Often, multiple visits are needed. When discussing prognosis, physicians should be sensitive to variations in how much information patients want to know. The challenge for physicians is to communicate prognosis accurately without giving false hope. All physicians involved in the patient’s care should coordinate their key prognosis points to avoid giving the patient mixed messages. As the disease progresses, physicians must reassess treatment effectiveness and discuss the values, goals, and preferences of the patient and family. It is important to initiate conversations about palliative care early in the disease course when the patient is still feeling well. There are innovative hospice programs that allow for simultaneous curative and palliative care. When physicians discuss the transition from curative to palliative care, they should avoid phrases that may convey to the patient a sense of failure or abandonment. Physicians also must be cognizant of how cultural factors may affect end-of-life discussions. Sensitivity to a patient’s cultural and individual preferences will help the physician avoid stereotyping and making incorrect assumptions. (Am Fam Physician. 2008;77(2):167-174. Copyright © 2008 American Academy of Family Physicians.)

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