Good communication should never be underestimated at any time, however this is never more important than when communicating with someone in relation to their health. It is impossible to overstate the importance of creating good communication between health professionals and patients in optimising health care.
As a medical oncologist for over 30 years I have seen many examples of both good and bad communication, with a recent example coming to mind. I met an old friend who informed me that he had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer – highly intelligent, well-read but non-medical he told me that the moment he heard the work “cancer” his mind blotted out completely. He remembers nothing of the rest of the consultation and left knowing next to nothing of the proposed management or his future. This is a frequently reported occurrence and for doctors the process of explaining a cancer diagnosis, outlining investigations necessary for staging and possible options for treatment this is ever more challenging.
Over the years I have seen and participated in amazing progresses in the science of cancer and the ever increasing knowledge and understanding regarding individual cancers, not to mention the possibilities for investigation and more and more available treatments. Good medical practice carries with it a responsibility to explain as much as possible to patients, but how and when to do this requires training and expertise. Time is a major pressure with often too much to explain in a single consultation. Patients can only absorb so much information at a time, if any as my friend found.
Sharing explanations between doctors and nurses can help patients digest what matters most to them, and having a relative or close friend with them doubles the hearing/comprehension experience. Hand-outs are no substitute for face-to-face conversation and doctors really have to work hard to develop the skill of “listening”! Thank goodness the art of medicine has not been totally replaced by science, but communication skills need to be practiced and continuously developed by all of us in helping patients to understand the complexity of a diagnosis of cancer.
Professor John F Smyth, Emeritus Professor Medical Oncology, University of Edinburgh