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 obstetricultrasound 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.

Six ways that breaking bad and difficult news in ultrasound is different to other settings

Not all pregnancies follow the textbook. Around 1 in 6 are lost to miscarriage or stillbirth and in 1 in 20 there is an unexpected finding on an ultrasound scan which could suggest the baby has a health condition (Ahman et al., 2014; Blohm et al., 2008; Skupski et al., 1996). Altogether around 150,000 families in England and Wales are affected by one of these complications each year (ONS; 2016). These events are deeply upsetting; parents who experience them are at higher risk for depression, anxiety and even symptoms of trauma (Blackmore et al., 2011; Cumming et al., 2007; Korenromp et al., 2005).

The role of ultrasound

Ultrasound is an important tool for diagnosing these complications and in the UK sonographers are the first to break the news to parents about what they have found. The way this is done is important, as it has a strong emotional impact on expectant parents (Bijma et al., 2008; Johnson et al., 2018). However, there is currently no evidence-based training to support sonographers with news delivery. The training which is available is generally based on research which has been conducted in oncology and other healthcare settings.

The need for an evidence-based training intervention

When I have suggested that new research is needed to understand how bad and difficult news can be better delivered via ultrasound, one question I have been asked is whether this is really needed. Isn’t there plenty of research in other settings to inform training? In this blog, I will present six ways that breaking bad and difficult news via ultrasound is different to breaking bad news in other settings.

1. There is no time for sonographers to prepare before delivering the news

A large body of research tells us that expectant parents study the sonographer’s face as they do the scan: they are attuned to their body language and facial expression and quickly sense when something is wrong. The sonographer is unintentionally communicating news before they even speak, and they have no time alone at all to mentally prepare before sharing what they have found with parents. In cancer care, this would be the same as a doctor having to open test results, read and interpret them while the patient watches them.

2. Having a baby isn’t primarily a healthcare event, it’s a rite of passage

Few people will spend years thinking about their future with a diagnosis of cancer, but many people, consciously or subconsciously, gather quiet expectations about what their future will be like with a child. When you deliver difficult news as a sonographer, you deliver it into a world of positive expectation, which is further fuelled by people sharing scan pictures on social media, and television shows like One Born Every Minute. Because of this, the situation is particularly high stress for both those delivering and those receiving the news.

 3. The need for a second opinion

When a sonographer identifies a miscarriage, stillbirth or fetal anomaly a second opinion is necessary to confirm his. The sonographer needs to leave the scan room to find another qualified healthcare professional who can confirm what has been seen. This is a difficult point, and one that is not encountered in other areas of healthcare. Sonographers are often torn over how much to disclose to the expectant parent before the second opinion has been gathered, especially if they are not confident themselves in what they have seen. Failing to disclose their concerns to the parent can result in parents feeling anxious when they find a second professional has been invited into the scan room without explanation. However, immediately disclosing concerns to parents that are then not confirmed can cause unnecessary anxiety. It’s a dilemma that sonographers regularly face which is not found in other difficult news delivery scenarios.

4. The news may be uncertain

When receiving difficult news in other settings, patients can rightly expect that the healthcare professional telling them this news will be informed about their condition and be able to provide detailed information on this. However, sonographers do not have this luxury. While scanning technology has advanced significantly in the last few decades, it is not always possible to provide accurate diagnoses and prognoses immediately. Because of this, sonographers are often communicating difficult news which is uncertain, and which could change in light of subsequent investigations.

5. Ultrasound presents opportunities and raises challenging choices

Unlike other areas of healthcare, ultrasound often provides a diagnosis before anyone’s health has been compromised. It can enable expectant parents to have missed miscarriages diagnosed and allow them to choose whether they want to shorten the length of their pregnancy by accepting a medical intervention. Ultrasound can also detect some fetal abnormalities.  If a baby is found to have a disability (or a possible disability) parents may need to decide whether to have invasive testing; whether to terminate the pregnancy; or in rare cases, whether to have prenatal interventions. These kinds of decisions introduce a huge weight of responsibility – could prenatal investigations and interventions put the baby or mother at risk? Is it morally wrong to terminate a pregnancy? Will not terminating a pregnancy detract energy from any existing children? When sonographers deliver difficult news they know they are often placing a burden of responsibility on expectant parents to make choices, in a way that is not encountered elsewhere in healthcare.

6. The warning shot is not always wanted

Most models for breaking bad news recommend the delivery of a ‘warning shot’ before the main news is imparted (e.g., Baile et al., 2000). This is designed to prepare patients that bad news is coming, and might run like this: “I’m afraid we have identified some concerning findings in your results”. My research has identified that this warning shot is not always wanted in ultrasound settings because parents have already received their warning shot from the sonographer’s body language and facial expression (see my blog on parent experiences here). These kinds of warning shots only extend the overall duration of the event and serve to increase expectant parents’ anxieties.  Furthermore, if the news being delivered is that the baby has a disability, this kind of warning shot can be taken as a negative value judgement by the healthcare professional, which may offend the expectant parent. Instead, parents prefer to be told things directly but kindly, in simple language. In my previous study in parents of children with limb differences, parents most preferred it when healthcare professionals simply said something like: “I can’t currently see your child’s arm below the elbow” (Johnson et al., 2018).

Summing up

There is strong evidence from other healthcare settings that training to improve news delivery is highly effective (see my blog on this here). However, there are clear differences between breaking bad and difficult news in ultrasound compared with other settings. Assuming that the same principles can be transposed from other healthcare settings into ultrasound without adaptation could at best reduce the effectiveness of training, and at worst, increase parental anxiety.

Can training improve doctors’ skills in breaking bad or difficult news? Our review

Breaking bad or difficult news in healthcare settings is challenging. What is the best way to tell someone they have cancer? How do you find words to say their treatment hasn’t worked? When I first became interested in this topic, I found a large body of literature had explored these questions. Studies suggested that the way difficult news is delivered has a lasting impact on patients’ subsequent symptoms of depression (Mager & Andrykowski, 2002), and that these events can have a negative impact on healthcare professionals themselves, increasing their stress levels (Shaw et al., 2013).

Despite this, one thing was still unclear: can this situation be improved? Can we train healthcare professionals to be better at delivering difficult news? This question seemed so big, so obvious, that my co-author Dr Maria Panagioti and I were sure it would have been answered before. We were surprised; while several individual studies had tested an intervention to break bad news, no one had yet systematically reviewed these studies and analysed the data together using meta-analysis. Meta-analysis combines results from multiple studies, providing better evidence about whether an intervention works and how effective it is than individual studies can provide. At first I was frustrated, why had no one done this yet? My frustration was quickly replaced with a sense of anticipation: if no one else had done it, there was an opening to do this ourselves! We got to work.

The search process
We decided to focus our review on doctors. We searched databases for potentially relevant studies and identified 2,270 records altogether. We filtered these by reading their abstracts, leaving 71 studies for more careful inspection. After reading the full texts of these, we excluded a further 53, leaving 17 studies for inclusion. The studies we included were from a range of countries, including the United States, Hong Kong and Israel. They were also from a range of healthcare settings, including palliative care, obstetrics and primary care.

Does training improve doctors’ skills in breaking bad or difficult news?
Altogether, the studies provided data from 1322 participants to answer our main question. The results of the meta-analyses were clear: interventions improved doctors’ abilities in breaking bad news with a large effect size. This effect wasn’t explained by sources that can bias results (such as the included studies being low in quality). Interestingly, interventions were most effective when they used an established framework for news delivery, known as ‘SPIKES’ (Baile et al., 2000). SPIKES outlines clear steps that doctors should follow when delivering bad or difficult news, such as delivering a ‘warning shot’ before breaking the news itself.

Could training help doctors too?
We asked a second question of the data, which was whether interventions can improve doctors’ confidence in delivering difficult news. Again, the results were clear: interventions improved doctors’ confidence in news delivery with a medium effect size. This suggests that difficult news delivery training may be one way to help reduce the stress levels of healthcare professionals who are regularly involved in these events, which is important considering current high rates of burnout in the healthcare workforce (see my previous blog on healthcare staff burnout here).

What now?
It is now clear that physicians can indeed be trained to deliver difficult news, and this training both improves their skills in difficult news delivery and also their confidence. What is less clear is whether such interventions can improve the experience of patients receiving this news. We only identified one study which looked at this. This study was based in Japanese cancer services (Fujimori et al., 2014). It found that when physicians were trained in breaking bad news, their patients reported significantly lower depression and anxiety symptoms later on, although the effect size was small. Further research into patient experience is warranted.

A need for further research in obstetric settings
One area future research on news delivery should focus on is obstetrics. The challenges in this setting are particularly complicated, as expectant parents may have no reason to think there is anything out of the ordinary with their pregnancy. Furthermore, if a healthcare professional has identified that a baby has a disability, it can be hard to know the extent of this before birth or how it will affect their lives. Our own research suggests that some parents still have a terrible experience at this time, which leaves a strong emotional imprint (Johnson et al., 2018; for my blog on this see here). Future research is needed to understand how healthcare practitioners working in obstetrics can be better trained and supported to deliver difficult news.

To read the review discussed in this blog, see here.

Can patient safety improvement still learn from the aviation industry?

As a clinical psychologist by background, starting out in patient safety research was a learning curve for me. Suddenly the outcomes being discussed weren’t mental health symptoms, they were avoidable patient deaths, medication errors and patient falls on wards. Another thing I began to hear about was the aviation industry. Practices from aviation had inspired early patient safety researchers and I came to understand that we had learned much from them. For example, they had introduced standardised reporting and embraced psychological approaches in order to understand the group behaviours that contribute to safety failures (Helmreich, 2000).

More recently, however, this idea has fallen from popularity. When Jeremy Hunt attended a hospital Q&A earlier this week, he used this analogy. @Dr_Sarah_H, an emergency doctor at the hospital, challenged him on it. She later tweeted the problems with this comparison, highlighting the relative complexity of healthcare to aviation, the lack of control staff often have over their workload and issues with understaffing in hospitals. Her string of tweets went viral (below).

 

A couple of days after seeing these tweets, I was contacted by an experienced RAF professional keen to share with me the things he believes aviation do which healthcare can still learn from. He said that the RAF:

  • Have both open and confidential reporting processes in place which are simple to use; with confidential reporting, should someone have a concern they feel they can’t raise through normal reporting channels, they can submit a confidential report which by-passes all channels and goes direct to the RAF’s Safety Centre where it will be investigated by an independent team whilst respecting the confidentiality of the reporter.

  • Reporting is viewed as the life-blood of the Safety Management System so some stations have introduced a monthly award scheme for the best report which is awarded by the senior officer on the station.This is aimed at those who report a ‘near miss’, even if it is due to their own honest mistake.

  • Every report is logged and investigated, with feedback provided to the reporter.

  • Everyone receives Human Factors training during which real-life case studies are used to draw out the key learning points.

  • To avoid ‘witch hunts’ which damage the reporting culture, all investigations take place under a strict ‘just’ culture by an independent team. Incidents are rarely found to have occurred due to a single factor; almost invariably a host of contributing factors are identified.

In summary, the aviation industry enables their staff to report in utter confidence and rewards staff for good reporting. I think it would be hard to deny that healthcare still has a long way to go to meet these standards. Perhaps the contention then, is not Jeremy Hunt’s point but his target audience: does he expect NHS emergency nurses and doctors to implement these changes? Unlikely. Telling staff working in underfunded services to achieve the safety levels seen in aviation will only engender frustration, the sense that they are not understood and that the impossible is being asked. As with the RAF, these changes will require leadership support, resource and buy-in from the highest levels.

How can we tackle healthcare staff burnout?

A previous post looked at the negative impact of staff burnout on patient care. But how can we tackle this problem? In this post I will consider the evidence for the effectiveness of interventions for reducing burnout.

Types of interventions
Interventions to tackle burnout are often broadly split into those which are targeted at the ‘individual-level’ and those which are targeted at the ‘organization-level’. Individual-level interventions are context independent; they view employees as people who are suffering from poor mental wellbeing and aim to treat this. They may include stress management workshops, one-to-one cognitive therapy or the provision of support phonelines for staff. Organization-level interventions on the other hand are ‘context dependent’; they view employees as workers being impacted by difficult work circumstances. They may include the changing of shift-patterns or rostering practices, improving canteen facilities or the provision of job training.

Are organization-level or individual-level interventions most effective?
There is debate as to which type of intervention is most effective. Three recent meta-analyses have found somewhat conflicting results.

  1. In a meta-analysis of 15 randomised trials and 37 cohort studies in doctors, West et al. (2016) found that while organization-level interventions were more effective than individual-level interventions for overall reducing overall burnout, there was no difference when the outcome was either of the specific facets of burnout (emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation).
  2. In a meta-analysis of 20 randomised controlled trials in doctors, Panagioti et al. (2017) found that organization-level interventions were significantly more effective than those which were targeted at the individual-level.
  3. In a meta-analysis in mental healthcare professionals, Dreison et al. (2018) found that individual-level interventions were more effective than those targeted at the organization-level.

Why the difference?
These conflicting results could partly be due to different interpretations of what the categories of ‘individual-level’ and ‘organization-level’ interventions include. For example, whereas West et al. (2016) included communication training interventions in with individual-level interventions, Dreison et al. (2018) regarded these as training interventions, which they included in with organization-level interventions. The lack of clear findings could also be an artefact of how broad these categories are; when Dreison et al. (2018) broke down the category of organization-level interventions into training interventions and non-training interventions, their results differed again; training interventions were actually more effective for reducing overall burnout scores than individual-level interventions. It is possible that the categories of ‘organization-level’ and ‘individual-level’ interventions are so broad as to be useless.

Take home message
Despite the confusion over organization-level vs. individual-level interventions, the clear message is that overall, interventions ARE effective. DO SOMETHING and there is a good chance your staff will benefit.

Helping staff to love their work
A first step in developing any effective burnout intervention should be to look at the causes of why this burnout has developed in the first place. This may sound obvious but it is often overlooked. Studies into the causes of burnout have identified several contributors which interventions could seek to address, including poor staffing ratios on wards, lack of time for patient-facing work, inadequate IT facilities and lack of training or professional development opportunities. The unifying theme here is that we need to help staff to love their work – we need to help make the difficult aspects of their work more manageable and support them to maximise and capitalise on the parts of the job they love. A recent example of this is the introduction of a caseload-carrying model of care to midwifery in Australia. Caseload-carrying midwives follow the same women up throughout their pregnancy, rather than simply attending to women who arrive at a clinic when they are working (who will likely have their other appointments with different midwives). There were concerns that carrying responsibility for a caseload may increase the burnout levels of midwives, but in fact the opposite has been found. A study by Dawson et al. (2018) found lower rates of burnout and more positive work attitudes in caseload-carrying midwives than those working in the traditional model. If we consider the causes of burnout, we could hypothesise that caseload-carrying midwives enjoyed stronger relationships with the patients that they had and were able to employ and develop a greater skill-set due to working with women at all different stages of pregnancy.

I work in healthcare. What can I do to help myself?
Research suggests that making changes at the level of the organization is a key to targeting healthcare staff burnout. However, if you are a healthcare worker keen to improve your own self-care, there are things you can do:

  1. Help yourself get good sleep. A recent study suggests that people who get better sleep are less likely to report burnout three years later (Elfering et al., 2018). If you work night shifts, getting good sleep may be particularly difficult for you. The BMA have recently published tips for managing these. Amongst other things, they suggest taking naps of 10-20 minutes during the early part of night shifts, avoiding caffeine and nicotine in the final few hours of night shifts, and wearing sunglasses on your journey home in the morning, even on a cloudy day.
  2. Put in boundaries. Nurses who have clear boundaries between their work and home lives have higher wellbeing (Oates, 2018) and psychotherapists who put in boundaries on an emotional level between themselves and their clients (Simionato et al., 2018) have lower burnout.
  3. Spend time relaxing, listening to music and being out in nature. Nurses who do this report higher wellbeing (Oates, 2018).
  4. Look into training opportunities you can access via work. The budgets for Continuing Professional Development have been squeezed in recent years, but research suggests that healthcare staff who get more workplace learning have higher job satisfaction (Iliopoulous et al., 2018), and training could be one of the best ways to tackle burnout (Dreison et al., 2018).
  5. See if there is a way you can get more time to do aspects of the job you think are important. Carefully consider the parts of your work that give you the greatest sense of satisfaction. Is it building positive relationships with patients? Is it contributing to service level improvements? Is it learning about recent advances in your area and seeking to apply this knowledge to your own patients? Whatever it is, see where there could be scope to spend more time on this. Research suggests that doctors believe having adequate time for key tasks is the most important thing to reduce burnout risk (Fortenberry et al., 2018).

This blog was written in conjunction with a talk given at the Practitioner Wellbeing Conference in Manchester on 14 June 2018. To download a copy of the slides, click here.