“Words matter. What clinicians say and how they say it hugely affect patients. Communicating about emotionally and medically complex topics such as advance care planning, preferences for care, prognosis, and death and dying is challenging,” Steve Pantilat, MD, Professor of Clinical Medicine and Director of the Palliative Care Unit at UCSF wrote in a 2009 JAMA article.
Pantilat recently spoke to an audience of more than 100 physicians and other health care professionals at a Nov. 29 ethics conference held at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View on “Better Words to Say: Communicating with the Very Ill Patient.”
“It’s not about the patient’s willingness to have this kind of conversation, but about [physicians’] willingness to have the conversation,” said Pantilat.
Discussing end-of-life issues with patients is not associated with depression, sadness, terror or worry according to research done by Wright and published in JAMA. In fact, this sort of conversation leads to better quality of life, fewer invasive interventions and better outcomes for caregivers. But how do we go about having the conversation? Here are some of the highlights of that talk and some useful approaches Steve Pantilat has learned over the years.
Ask open-ended questions to establish what the patient and family know.
Examples of questions he asks are: “When you think about what lies ahead, what worries you the most?” and “When you think about the future, what do you hope for?”
The answers to these questions may be very different than you anticipated and may guide care decisions. For instance, if a patient says he wants to have chemotherapy and visit his home town, the physician may recognize that the visit may not be feasible after chemotherapy, and that if it will not significantly change the outcome of the disease, perhaps the patient should take the trip first.
Listen and sit down.
Pantilat referred to a well known study done in the 1970s that demonstrated that patients perceived their physicians’ visits to be much longer than they actually were when the physician sat down to talk with them.
Pantilat suggests that physicians listen for at least two minutes before talking (which he admits may seem interminable at the time). He emphasizes the value of not interrupting since most important things don’t come out at the very beginning of a conversation.
Avoid jargon, use simple language and check understanding.
Patients will often nod as though they understand although they are clueless to the meaning of what you are saying. Pantilat says that the answer is usually “No” to the question “Do you have any questions?” But he has noticed a distinct difference when he subtly rewords the question to say “What questions do you have?”
“Accuracy is not critical,” said Pantilat. Patients and families don’t need to know an exact prognosis, but they do need a realistic frame of reference. He suggests using ranges such as “hours to days,” “days to weeks,” or “weeks to months.” One person may interpret “not long” as days while another may think it refers to a year.
Offer a prognosis.
“False hope is not hope because it is not based in reality,” said Pantilat, reminding his audience of the research published in the NEJM that found that TV patients had a 79% rate of survival with quality life after CPR, whereas in real life the numbers are far grimmer. The problem is that the public gets its information from television.
Discuss death explicitly.
Talking about death can be a great relief, says Pantilat. He suggests practicing difficult conversations and in this setting suggests phrasing such as, “Many patients with lung cancer tell me they think about the possibility of dying. They have questions about this. How about you?”
Remain sensitive to the patient’s culture.
Pantilat cautioned about assuming all persons of a particular culture have similar beliefs and suggests the solution lies in asking, “In your family how do you make medical decisions?” His experience has told him that patients often know much more than physicians or families realize. Although they may never have been spoken to directly about their disease, the visits to a cancer center, increasing treatment, arrival of family members from afar and a host of other clues tell them about their condition.
Pantilat does caution that we should always ask how much the patient wants to know, regardless of what the family has said. To be sensitive he often asks, “I have information about your condition. Some patients want to know the details, others prefer to have me talk to someone else. How do you feel?”
Use better words.
There is never a time when it is appropriate to say, “There is nothing more we can do.” Pantilat suggests instead, “There is no more we can do to cure your disease.” And rather than arguing with family members about the futility of treatments, Pantilat likes to put himself on their side by saying, “I wish there was something we could do to make your cancer go away.”
Ask helpful questions.
Questions such as, “Would you like us to do everything possible?” are not helpful and will always be answered “Yes.” However, “everything” may mean all possible curative medical treatments to the physician, while the family interprets it to mean all possible efforts aimed at keeping their loved one comfortable. Pantilat finds it clarifying in this situation to ask, “How were you hoping we could help?”
Be aware of your non-verbal communication.
Asking someone if they have any other questions while your hand is on the door sends a loud message and the answer will usually be, “No.”
Pantilat concluded by acknowledging that this process is usually more than one conversation and that physicians should share the responsibility with others such as the palliative care team, social workers, and chaplains. Discussions about goals of care are good for patients and families: Use better words.