Research suggests communication skills do not reliably improve with experience and considerable effort is dedicated to courses improving communication skills for health professionals. The evaluation of such courses is of importance to enable evidence-based teaching and practice.
To assess whether communication skills training is effective in changing behaviour of health professionals in cancer care with regard to communication/interaction with patients..
We searched CENTRAL (Cochrane Library Issue 3 2001), MEDLINE (1966 to November 2001), EMBASE (1980 to November 2001), PsycInfo (1887 to November 2001), CINAHL (1982 to November 2001), AMED (1985 - October 2001), Dissertation Abstracts International (1861 to March 2002) and EBM Reviews (1991 to March/April 2001). Reference lists of relevant articles were searched.
Randomized controlled trials or controlled before and after studies of communication skills training in cancer health professionals, measuring changes in behaviour/skills using objective and validated scales.
Data collection and analysis
Two reviewers independently assessed trial quality and extracted data.
Although 2822 references were considered, only two trials involving 232 health professionals were included. One provided an intensive three-day course then assessed oncology doctors interacting with a total of 640 patients; the other provided a modular course then used role plays with oncology nurses for skill assessment.
In one trial, course attendees used more focused questions (34% increase, pobability < 0.005), focused and open questions (27% increase, p = 0.005), expressions of empathy (69% increase, p < 0.005) and appropriate responses to cues (38% increase, p < 0.05) at follow up than non-attendees. No significant differences were found between attendees and non-attendees in use of leading questions. From baseline to follow up in the same study, attendees had significantly different changes in rates of leading questions (relative risk 0.72, p < 0.05), focused questions (Relative Risk 1.25, p < 0.005), open questions (RR 1.17, p < 0.05) and empathy (RR 1.50, p = 0.005). The only significant difference in observed communication skills in the second trial was that the trained group were more in control of the follow-up interview than the untrained group (p < 0.05). Both studies investigated differences in summarising, interrupting and checking but found none.
The training programmes assessed by these trials appear to be effective in improving cancer care professionals communication skills. It is not known whether the training would be effective if taught by other educators, nor has any trial compared the efficacy of both programmes.