Dr Mahibur Rahman
This article was first published in February 2005 and is reproduced with the kind permission of Hospital Doctor, who retain the copyright.
Talking to the families of your patients can be one of the most difficult parts of your life as a doctor, but you can make it one of the most rewarding. It is part of everyday life for junior staff to be asked to discuss a patient’s care. Although this may set off panic alarms inside your head, there are a few key things that can really help, whether you are breaking bad news or just updating the family on management plans.
You need to be fully aware of all aspects of the current situation before beginning a discussion with a family – incorrect information can produce problems later on. Arrange a time (even if it’s only five minutes later), and go over the case notes to remind yourself of exactly what has happened, what is happening now and what is going to happen. If you are breaking the news of a patient’s death, make sure you know as much about the events surrounding the death as possible (cause, time, people present etc.). Consult with other members of the team (especially nursing staff). If possible, ask someone to hold your pager while you deal with the relatives. Make sure you get permission (where appropriate) from the patient to discuss their care with relatives.
Set the scene
It is essential that any discussions take place in a suitable environment – ideally a quiet side room or office where you won’t be disturbed. Holding a discussion around the bed is very rarely a good idea. There should be adequate seating for everyone. Standing when you are talking to someone can give the impression that you don’t have much time, and need to rush off somewhere else. Try to bring a member of the ward staff with you – someone who can stay afterwards and explain or reinforce anything that you said.
What to say
Honesty is one of the factors that relatives value the most when dealing with doctors. They need the truth to make their personal adjustments to their plans. Make sure that you do not stray from the facts, and if you are unsure about something, NEVER make it up. Instead, offer to find out and leave the details with the ward staff, or arrange another meeting.
…and how to say it
At all times, be polite and patient. Remember that the family will be under great strain. Explain things in language that the relatives can understand, avoiding medical jargon as much as possible. The relatives are much more likely to understand “your father has had a stroke”, than “the CT scan has shown an ischaemic CVA”. Where the family have a grievance about anything do not be defensive and never raise your voice – this will make the situation worse. An apology a day keeps the lawyers away.
Say it again, Sam
You may have to explain things more than once, and relatives sometimes have their own ideas about what is going on. Allow them to air their concerns. Always ask if they would like you to go over anything, and offer them a chance to ask questions. The wording of this is very important – saying “is there anything I haven’t explained clearly?” is better than “is there anything you didn’t understand?”. Although having essentially the same meaning, the first does not demean the relatives in any way, where the second might be taken as an insult to their intelligence.
And in the end
Finally, leave a means of contact if they want to follow up your discussion – this can be by leaving a message with the ward clerk or a member of the nursing team, or via your pager (only give this out if you genuinely don’t mind relatives bleeping you – it is usually better to call them so that you are properly prepared for any conversation).
You will find that family members are often very grateful for the time you take to discuss their relative’s care. And doing this well will give a huge boost your job satisfaction.
Here are some of the keys to successfully dealing with relatives.
- Look and speak the part
- Make sure you know the case well – read over the notes carefully
- Turn off your phone and hand over your bleep so you aren’t disturbed
- Use a quiet room with adequate seating
- Explain the facts clearly, avoiding medical jargon
- Offer to go over diagnoses and management
- Leave time for relatives to ask questions
- Offer to find out things you don’t know
- Make notes and record what was said in the patient’s notes