Delivering bad or life-altering news

Franklin Berkey, Joseph Wiedemer, Nicki D. Vithalani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Delivering serious, bad, or life-altering news to a patient is one of the most difficult tasks physicians encounter. Broadly defined as information that may alter a patient’s view of his or her future, bad news may include information related to a chronic disease (e.g., diabetes mellitus), a life-altering illness (e.g., multiple sclerosis), or an injury leading to significant change (e.g., a season-ending knee injury). Patients prefer to receive such news in person, with the physician’s full attention, and in clear, easy-to-understand language with adequate time for questions. Most patients prefer to know their diagnosis, but the amount of desired details varies among different cultures and by education level, age, and sex. The physician should respect the patient’s unique preferences for receiving bad news. Physicians may experience stress related to providing bad news that extends beyond the actual conversation. For example, physicians are afraid of eliciting an emotional reaction, being blamed for the bad news, and expressing their emotions during the process. Physicians often withhold information or are overly optimistic regarding prognosis, but this can lead to confusion for patients regarding their condition. There are several algorithms available to help guide the physician in the delivery of bad news, including the SPIKES protocol (setting, perception, invitation, knowledge, emotion, and strategy and summary). Skillful delivery of bad news can provide comfort for the patient and family.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)99-104
Number of pages6
JournalAmerican family physician
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 15 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Family Practice


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