What are the communication skills and needs of doctors when communicating a poor prognosis to patients and their families? A qualitative study from South Africa
Background. Thousands of South Africans are diagnosed with life-threatening illness every year. Research shows that, globally, of the 20 million people who need palliative care at the end of life every year, <10% receive it.
Objectives. To explore communication skills and practices of medical practitioners when conveying a poor prognosis to patients and families, and to identify their communication skills, needs and understanding of palliative care.
Methods. This was an exploratory qualitative study of practising doctors, using a grounded theory approach. The study was conducted at a government-funded public hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, which is a referral centre for various illnesses, including cancer. Face-toface, one-on-one interviews using a semistructured interview guide were conducted, using audio recording.
Results. The emerging theory from this study is that doctors who understand the principles of palliative care and who have an established working relationship with a palliative care team feel supported and express low levels of emotional anxiety when conveying a poor prognosis.
Conclusion. Having hospital-based palliative care teams in all public hospitals will provide support for patients and doctors handling difficult conversations. All healthcare professionals should be trained in palliative care so that they can effectively communicate concerns related to poor prognosis with patients and their families. Communication, loss and grief issues should be part of the curriculum in all disciplines and throughout training in medical school.
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