Navigating hard patient conversations, per 3 physicians

Treatment did not go as planned, there were complications during surgery, an injury is more severe than thought — whatever the case may be, sharing sometimes life-altering news with patients and their families takes an emotional toll on physicians.

Conjuring up the right words in the right order to convey all the information they need to know while doing it with empathy takes practice — even for longtime physicians.

A new article published by the American College of Surgeons details in depth what works, what doesn't, and how physicians can and should also take care of themselves after sharing difficult news.

Here's what three active physicians told ACS has helped them navigate some of the most challenging, painful conversations of their careers: 

  1. Though patients understand what is going on, it's also important to realize "clinical language isn't always clear to patients," noted Kimberly Kopecky, MD, a surgical oncology fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

  2. Before sharing the news, physicians say a phrase that signals something serious is about to be said to prepare them and then "it is best to get right to the point after preparing them for the news," said Emily Rivet, MD, a surgeon at Virginia Commonwealth University Health in Richmond.

  3. Planning out what to say before saying anything can be beneficial for physicians and patients alike, said Margaret "Gretchen" Schwarze, MD, a vascular surgeon at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "You need to think through what you are going to say before you go in there and just dump your thoughts on people," she noted. 

Dr. Schwarze is also featured in a video published by the ACS detailing further tips for physicians on how to take care of themselves after sharing difficult news.

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