‘Hitting you over the head’: Oncologists’ disclosure of prognosis to advanced cancer patients

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Abstract

The disclosure of prognosis to terminally ill patients has emerged as a recent concern given greater demands for patient involvement in medical decision-making in the United States. As part of the informed consent process, American physicians are legally and ethically obligated to provide information to such patients about the risks, benefits, and alternatives of all available treatment options including the use of experimental therapies. Although not legally required, the disclosure of a terminal prognosis is ethically justified because it upholds the principle of self-determination and enables patients to make treatment decisions consistent with their life goals. To understand oncologists’ attitudes about disclosing prognostic information to cancer patients with advanced disease, we interviewed fourteen oncologists and conducted one focus group of medical fellows. Although oncologists reported to disclose prognosis in terms of cancer not being curable, they tend to avoid using percentages to convey prognosis. Oncologists’ reported reluctance to disclosing prognosis was conveyed through the use of metaphors depicting the perceived violent impact of such information on patients. Oncologists’ reluctance to disclose prognosis and preserve patient hope are held in check by their need to ensure that patients have ‘realistic expectations’ about therapy. We discuss these data in light of the cultural, ethical, and legal dimensions of prognosis disclosure, patient hope and the doctor–patient relationship, and recommend ways to enhance the communication process.

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