• Open Access

The goals of communicating bad news in health care: do physicians and patients agree?


Kate Sweeny PhD
Department of Psychology
University of California
CA 92521
E-mail: ksweeny@ucr.edu


Background  Communicating bad news serves different goals in health care, and the extent to which physicians and patients agree on the goals of these conversations may influence their process and outcomes. However, we know little about what goals physicians and patients perceive as important and how the perceptions of physicians and patients compare.

Objective  To compare physicians’ and patients’ perceptions of the importance of different communication goals in bad news conversations.

Design  Survey-based descriptive study.

Participants  Physicians in California recruited via a medical board mailing list (n = 67) and patients (= 77) recruited via mailing lists and snowball recruitment methods.

Measurements  Physicians reported their experience communicating bad news, the extent to which they strive for various goals in this task and their perceptions of the goals important to patients. Patients reported their experience receiving bad news, the goals important to them and their perceptions of the goals important to physicians.

Main results  Physicians and patients were quite similar in how important they personally rated each goal. However, the two groups perceived differences between their values and the values of the other group.

Conclusions  Physicians and patients have similar perceptions of the importance of various goals of communicating bad news, but inaccurate perceptions of the importance of particular goals to the other party. These findings raise important questions for future research and clinical practice.