Bad news? Focus on the person

Heres an example of someone who knows how to focus on the person. Social worker with a SAGE client. Image from bwhheartandscience

If we focus on the person, rather than their diagnosis or any specific intervention, this can turn the idea of ‘bad news conversations’ (almost!) upside down.

When so many doctors find talking about bad news so difficult, just saying that we need to be more open doesn’t really help. Especially when many patients and their families simply collude in avoiding talking about bad news.

There’s a big worry that being explicit ‘removes hope’ and so just upsets patient and their families.

So Ariadne Labs asked “Why don’t these [bad news] conversations happen?” and “What can we do to make sure they do?” They identified the things that get in the way. Based on this, they created a systematic, multistep intervention, called SAGE. This even includes practice for the doctors with trained actors standing in as patients.

Usually doctors ask about treatment options: Do you want this?  Or do you want that? Ariadne’s very different approach has a strong focus on the person. It starts with asking patients if it’s OK to ask. This is like the ‘I’ for ‘invitation’ in the SPIKES model I already discussed.

It underlines that while we can hope for the best, we should prepare for the worst.

And is also clear that (because they do all this early!) no decisions are necessary today. The specific questions start with asking and listening. Always, the key is to focus on the person. They ask:

What is your understanding now of where you are with your illness?

Of course, anyone using this method should look through the whole thing. But I wanted to pick out some great questions that follow on from here (even if they are perhaps in American med-speak). With each of them there is a focus on the person:

  • If your health situation worsens, what are your most important goals?

  • What are your biggest fears and worries about the future with your health?

  • What abilities are so critical to your life that you can’t imagine living without them?

  • If you become sicker, how much are you willing to go through for the possibility of gaining more time?

Reaching an understanding about these sorts of things helps doctors to properly understand what patients might want in the uncertain, ever-shifting times ahead.

SAGE launched their program in primary care, because they “guessed that doctors’ long-term and trusting relationships with their patients would ease these conversations.” Following the training, almost three quarters of more than 200 primary care patients identified with serious and complex illness had useful and detailed conversations.

But Ariadne discovered early on that primary care missed out on a lot of people. A review of more than 350 deaths found that half of the most complex of these had been “cycling between the hospital, nursing homes and other care facilities” rather than being seen in primary care. So they decided to look at hospital conversations as well. They recognised that they needed to design a program specifically for inpatient clinicians – the doctors and nurses who manage patients once they arrive at the hospital.

The challenge was that “traditionally, end-of-life conversations within hospitals focus on medical procedures rather than more nuanced discussions about the patients’ goals and wishes.”

Hospital staff needed help “not only in identifying patients with whom they should have these challenging conversations, but in the specifics of the conversation itself. They also needed support to ensure rapid follow up with patients, families and primary care teams after the patient left the hospital.” The SAGE Programme arranged for social workers to share the information from the hospital discussions with primary and community care staff. And to act as a steady contact after discharge. This all allowed the clinicians to focus on the person.

A pilot study found that 100% of patient in the SAGE programme had detailed and clearly documented conversations about goals and priorities compared with just 40% of patients in the usual care group. Other positive data has been presented at scientific conferences.

Perhaps most importantly “having the conversation lowered patients’ anxiety, and patients reported that their hopefulness remained steady, while their sense of control over medical decisions increased.”

The fuller report of this work includes a story about “a patient we’ll call Evelyn”. This elegant 81-year-old lady had advanced dementia, so had been in hospital four times in eight months. “Before Evelyn started with the SAGE program, her devoted daughter had advocated for any treatment that might keep her mother alive longer. After careful discussions between Evelyn’s clinicians and the family that focused on Evelyn’s personality, sources of enjoyment, and known life priorities, as well as the trajectory of her illness, the family shifted the goals of her care from quantity of life to quality. Evelyn was content and comfortable in her final months, spending time with family, listening to music, and eating foods she enjoyed, rather than returning to the unfamiliar and restrictive environment of the hospital. Her daughter later reflected on the pivotal role of these discussions in helping to plan better for what lay ahead – in order to honour the things that were most important to Evelyn in her final months.”

Talking is good – but is that enough?

Brendan McCann has written of how challenging it is for doctors talking. He is a 30 year old cancer doctor who was diagnosed with a rare cancer in his pelvis:

“My partner and I sat wide-eyed as the surgeon scrolled through the MRI scan … explained the diagnosis [and what was going to be done] … then we saw a kind nurse who gave me leaflets about [the specific cancer] and cancer support groups.” Luckily, Dr McCann’s cancer was surgically removed and he was told he needed no further treatment.

Afterwards, “as advised by the nurse, [Dr McCann] attended the cancer support unit.

My partner asked me why I was going.

‘Because I had cancer,’ I said.

Shocked, she replied, ‘What, really?’ ”

Dr McCann wrote of how “despite our best efforts, [doctors] are often asked to reiterate our explanations to patients or their relatives”. He commented that although it might be difficult for doctors talking, “next time [doctors] get frustrated by this, [they should] ask [themselves] this question: if the girlfriend of an oncologist didn’t even know he had cancer, what chance do the general public have of fully understanding their medical predicament?”

His article is headed: “It’s good to talk, actually talk

But is simply talking, even ‘actually talking’, enough?

Some other questions were also raised here for me, including about how:

  • Dr McCann was alone with a serious problem — his partner didn’t even think he had cancer;
  • the phrasing of the end question almost seems to perpetuate ideas about the technical mastery of doctors, and the limitations of patients — when doctors do not actually have full mastery over cancer, and patients are known to actively collude in the handling of bad news.

Read more in linked posts here and here.