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Surgeons Need Help Learning How to Deliver Bad News

Last Updated: August 18, 2011.

Most have no formal training in doctor-patient communications, researchers say.

THURSDAY, Aug. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Training can help surgical residents learn how to be more supportive and compassionate when talking with patients facing cancer, a new study finds.

But even the training has limitations. While surgeons who underwent communication training improved how they handled specific cases, the training didn't improve their general communication skills, according to the researchers.

The study included 44 general surgery residents who were first assessed on their ability to talk to a person playing the role of a patient about a breast or rectal cancer diagnosis, including delivering the bad news and helping the patient understand what was ahead. Residents were also assessed on their general communication skills.

The surgery residents then took part in an interactive program about doctor-patient communication. The residents were then re-assessed and showed significant improvement in their case-specific performance, but not in their general communication skills, according to the report published in the August issue of the Archives of Surgery.

"Our results show that case-specific improvements seem more amenable to measurable improvement than general communications skills, at least with the limited short-term training that we used," wrote Dr. Rajiv Chandawarkar, of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, and colleagues. "Such skills can be assessed over a longer period, perhaps by incorporating this model and assessments from year to year."

In general, U.S. surgical residents have no formal training in patient education and are expected to learn these skills in practice, the researchers pointed out in a journal news release. But "without communication skills, even the best surgical training would be rendered ineffective," the authors concluded.

SOURCE: JAMA/Archives journals, news release, Aug. 15, 2011

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