Radiologists as Bearers of Bad News – Areas of Improvement

There’s bad news, and then there’s really bad news. You can bear the first, but the second kind takes a really long time to sink in, and once it does, you know life will never be the same again. Probably the worst part of a radiologist’s work is that they are often forced to be the bearer of really bad news –  no one likes to hear the words tumor or cancer, even if it’s benign or just the beginning of the dreaded disease. So when radiologists see bad news, they’re hesitant about breaking it to the patient, either because they don’t know how to or because they feel that the family physician is the best person for the job.

But patients today are an impatient and intelligent lot – they’re chomping at the bit to know the outcome of their scan, and if you don’t tell them, they start to imagine the worst even if there’s no bad news. So it more or less falls to the radiologist to be the one to break the diagnosis to them, and if they mess up the process, they could end up causing much more mental trauma to the already stricken patient. There are a few areas where radiologists could work on their communication skills with patients, especially when they have to give them bad news. In general, radiologists could do the following:

  • Avoid technical and medical jargon and stick to human-speak: Not everyone is familiar with even the simplest of medical terms, so don’t use terms that your patients are unlikely to understand. Keep it simple and straightforward, and get to the point without beating around the bush.
  • Make sure a loved one is with the patient: It’s best to ensure that a spouse or loved one is present when you break bad news that could cause emotional trauma. It makes the tragedy a little easier to bear.
  • Read the patients’ reactions before giving them more bad news: Don’t push on with delivering the news even when you can see that the patient is suffering an emotional breakdown. Learn how to read their emotions before you finish what you have to say.
  • Break the bad news into smaller portions: In general, it’s best to break the bad news into smaller portions that are easier to take. If it’s cancer or a malignant tumor, patients react badly because they know what to expect – the worst. So it’s ok if you don’t tell them everything in one go.
  • Avoid giving them false hope or unnecessary reasons to worry: Don’t scare your patients by making their illness more serious than it actually is or give them false hope when you know there is none. Give them the facts in a humane manner, be kind and gentle when delivering the news, and let them react as they should.
  • Direct them to talk to their physician: Encourage patients to meet with their primary care providers at the earliest so that any future treatment can be charted out.
  • Allow them to give vent to their emotions: And finally, don’t judge patients for giving vent to their emotions. There is bound to be a range of them – anger, denial, guilt, sadness, misery, shock, and others. So allow them some time alone, and if they’re not with family or friends, encourage them to call someone they can trust with the news.

When bad news is delivered in the right way, it makes a significant difference in the way patients cope with the disease.