Breaking bad news in healthcare: why we shoot the messenger

Breaking bad news is a cornerstone of healthcare delivery. From the doctor delivering blood test results in cancer services to the sonographer communicating the discovery of a pregnancy loss, healthcare professionals regularly find themselves in this challenging situation.

But why is it so challenging? In theory, the healthcare professional is simply the messenger: the person relaying information about an event they did not cause and had no influence over. The reality is nothing like this, though. Research tells us that healthcare professionals find these situations highly stressful, particularly when the news is unexpected or seems unusual or unjust. Some end up coping in unhelpful ways; distancing themselves from the patient by using technical language, delaying the communication of the news or avoiding it altogether and passing the task on to someone else. These coping tactics often backfire by creating a more negative experience for the patient and further increasing the stress the healthcare professional feels.

breaking bad news

A recent study has shed light on these conversations, identifying some of the underlying reasons for why these events are quite so difficult for healthcare professionals. This study conducted a series of 11 experiments, which together showed that:

  • After receiving bad news, people feel a need to try and ‘make sense’ of it
  • To help them ‘make sense’ of bad news, people dislike the person who told them, even if they clearly are not to blame for what has happened
  • People dislike the messenger even more if the news is unexpected, or if it is particularly unjust or unusual
  • The reason that people dislike those who tell them bad news is because they think these messengers have bad motives: they mean badly
  • This effect is reduced if recipients of bad news have reason to think the messenger has benevolent motives or means well

This study used a range of news delivery scenarios, including one where a person was told that they had not won a $2 bonus and another where their scheduled flight was running late. However, I think this study has important implications for healthcare settings for three main reasons:

  1. It brings a new perspective to why these events are so challenging for healthcare professionals. It’s not logical, but the truth is that patients will like professionals less when they deliver bad news, and consciously or subconsciously, professionals know this. Building good professional-patient relationships is a key part of healthcare delivery, and having to deliver bad news works against this.
  2. It highlights the situations where delivering bad and difficult news is going to be most challenging. Specifically, these are likely to be where the news is unexpected or where it is particularly unusual or unjust. I think that two key settings where staff should be better supported with this task are obstetric ultrasound and maternity services more broadly, as the news is often unexpected and paediatrics, where bad news could be more likely to be perceived as unusual and unjust. In these situations, the recipients of bad news may have to work harder to make sense of the information they have received, and as such, may be more likely to ‘shoot the messenger’.
  3. It offers a suggestion for how healthcare professionals can reduce the ‘shoot the messenger’ effect: namely, by communicating their benevolent intentions. For example, this could involve saying ‘I’m so sorry, I hoped to bring you better news than this. This must be so difficult for you to hear’. However, doing this requires professionals to be forthcoming and open. Unhelpfully, the impact of stress often has the opposite effect: it inhibits people, making them more careful and wary of saying ‘the wrong thing’; therefore increasing the chance that they’ll say very little. What this research shows is that by going against the natural instinct to say little in stressful situations, healthcare professionals can reduce the ‘shoot the messenger’ effect and help create a better experience for both themselves and their patients. It is also consistent with findings of a review I conducted which showed that training healthcare professionals in breaking bad news works: it enhances their confidence of how to manage these difficult situations and improves their skills.

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