Communication skills training for health care professionals working with cancer patients, their families and/or carers


  • D Fellowes,

    Senior Research Fellow, Corresponding author
    1. Marie Curie Cancer Care, Marie Curie Palliative Care Research and Development Unit, London, London, UK
    • D Fellowes, Senior Research Fellow, Marie Curie Palliative Care Research and Development Unit, Marie Curie Cancer Care, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, Royal Free and University College Medical School, Royal Free Campus, Rowland Hill Street, London, London, NW3 2PF, UK.

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  • S Wilkinson,

  • P Moore



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..

Search strategy

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.

Selection criteria

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.

Main results

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.

Reviewer's conclusions

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.

Plain language summary


More research is required to determine the usefulness of communications skills training for professionals working with cancer patients

There is some evidence to suggest labour-intensive communications skills training can have a beneficial effect on behaviour change in professionals working with cancer patients. It is not clear if this is partly due to the enthusiasm and/or skill of the facilitators and/or participants. Further research is required to assess the long-term efficacy of compulsory training, comparing different methods of training and using the awareness of patients to change as an outcome.