How to Deliver Hard News to Your Patients.
When the time comes to deliver hard news to patients, it’s never easy. Telling someone that their IVF didn’t work or they’ve lost a pregnancy, takes a lot out of everyone involved. The patient and the caregiver walk away with emotional distress—even those who have tried to develop a “thick skin.”
Caregivers get into healthcare to help people. When that doesn’t happen, it can be emotionally painful. It’s also common to have genuine sadness in response to your patient’s situation. We’re all human beings here, and there’s no magic button to turn off how you feel. But, in some ways, these strong emotions can work to our advantage.
How can emotional turmoil help? It means that you are empathetic and that you care deeply about the people you treat. Did you know that in the midst of delivering bad news, you can help a patient simply through your presence as an empathetic provider*?
Connection makes difficult situations easier.
When delivering difficult news, people don’t need solutions for the pain or difficulty. They need to know they are not alone, and that someone understands how they are feeling. Rather than going into problem-solving mode, recognize that your patients want your understanding in the moment.
By showing understanding, you can put the patient on the right path from the start. At the very least, they walk away from the encounter with a feeling of validation. You may not be able to solve their problem or make the pain go away, but the fact you show understanding and compassion is critical.
Don’t confuse empathy with sympathy.
Sympathy is when we deliver difficult news that is incredibly painful, with a positive spin. It’s an attempt to make someone feel better versus truly connecting with them to process hard news.
When you sympathize and try to put a positive spin, it might sound like:
“The good news is ….” “At least ….” “Here’s the upshot ….” “Let’s get you in for another cycle ….”
Demonstrating empathy is simply about reinforcing that you are there in the moment to be supportive. And that you are aware of how difficult the emotions are that your patient is feeling.
When you empathize, it might sound like:
“This is difficult news and I want you to know you are not alone.”
“I get it. It makes sense you feel this way. I’m here with you. You are not alone. Take all the time you need. Is there anything else you’d like to say?”
Introception is essential for empathy.
Introception is the ability to connect what is happening inside our bodies. Many of our emotions are linked to physical sensations. For example, if you are injured, you may cry or feel angry as part of your emotional response.
This awareness allows you to regulate your emotions, and that is why it’s essential for empathy. Introception is something you can cultivate. You can increase your ability to notice sensations, give them meaning, and eventually build related skills.
For example, if every time you get nervous about delivering bad news: your heart begins to beat rapidly and you break out in a sweat. You can take a moment before interacting with your client to calm your breath and slow down your heartbeat, thereby regulating your emotions. It’s an opportunity to care for yourself, so you can better care for your patients.
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*Monden, K. R., Gentry, L., & Cox, T. R. (2016). Delivering bad news to patients. Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center), 29(1), 101–102. https://doi.org/10.1080/08998280.2016.11929380
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