Significant advances have been made in our understanding of psychological adjustment to cancer over the last 40 years. Most clinicians now recognise the importance of psychosocial factors and the need for skills in emotional support. In the first phase of psycho-oncology, pioneering work in the 1970s and 1980s mapped the extent of psychological morbidity in cancer. This has been followed by a second phase where clinical trials have demonstrated that psychological treatments are effective. But although clinicians may feel more confident in identifying distress and listening to the patient, they rarely feel confident that they possess the skills to help. This paper will review the progress through the first two phases and argue that we are now in the third phase where we can begin to examine methods for delivering cost-effective psychological care. One of these methods is to equip staff with basic skills to understand and manage psychological distress. This paper will also describe a programme over the last 10 years to evaluate the effectiveness and clinical impact of such training for palliative care professionals. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.