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Cancer Health Center

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Communication in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Unique Aspects of Communication with Cancer Patients


The patient-centered model of care emphasizes the importance of the clinician's relationship with the patient and the patient's family as a therapeutic tool, endorses shared decision making as a key component of treatment, and emphasizes clinician understanding and addressing of patient concerns and information needs as important in promoting patient well-being and quality of life.[12,13] Interpersonal and communication skills are essential in achieving these goals and are also associated with other important clinical outcomes for the patient, the patient's family, and the medical team. These skills are especially important in highly charged emotional situations such as transitioning the patient to palliative care and at the end of life.

Patient Information Needs

Imparting information to the patient can serve the following key functions:

  • Grant patients a sense of control.
  • Reduce anxiety.
  • Improve compliance.
  • Create realistic expectations.
  • Promote self-care and participation.
  • Generate feelings of safety and security.

Many patients actively seek information and identify acquiring information as a priority. In one study,[14] with 12 specific information and support topics listed, patients chose information as their greatest need. Ninety-seven percent of patients wanted more feedback on the progress of the cancer; 88% wanted more information on the probable future of their illness; and 91% wanted more information about their illness. Another study [15] found that 83% of the female breast cancer patients interviewed wanted as much information as possible; 16% wanted limited information; 91% wanted to know their prognosis before beginning adjuvant treatment; and 63% wanted their oncologist to ask them whether they wanted to know their prognosis. Patient needs may, however, shift to an emphasis on support immediately after the first consultation. A study has shown that 63% of patients wanted more assurance that they would be looked after; 59% wished for greater reassurance and hope; and 59% expressed an increased need to talk about their worries and fears.[14] In several studies, information-seeking has been found to have beneficial effects on increased compliance, increased patient satisfaction, improved quality of life, and reduced distress.[14,16,17]

Although many patients have high information needs, some patients want less information about their cancer. Research increasingly supports clinical experience in clarifying that patients differ in the amount of information they want and need about their cancer care.[18] In addition, patients' information needs may change at different points on the disease and treatment trajectory, with patients who have advanced disease desiring less information about their illness.[14] It is often difficult for providers to accurately estimate or provide the amount or type of information that patients want, leading to patient dissatisfaction with the amount or type of information they receive.[19,20,21,22] Thus, it is important for a clinician to ask how much information a patient wants.

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