Doctors Learn How To Talk To Patients About Dying

Kaiser Health News, February 12, 2018

Doctors can be so focused on trying to fix each ailment that 'no one is addressing the big picture.'

This article first appeared February 08, 2018 on Kaiser Health News.

By Melissa Bailey

Dr. Juliet Jacobsen, medical director of the Continuum Project at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, trains primary care doctors in how to talk to patients with serious illnesses about their goals and values. (Melissa Bailey/KHN)

Lynn Black's mother-in-law, who had lupus and lung cancer, was rushed into a hospital intensive care unit last summer with shortness of breath. As she lay in bed, intubated and unresponsive, a parade of doctors told the family "all good news."

A cardiologist reported the patient's heart was fine. An oncologist announced that the substance infiltrating her lungs was not cancer. An infectious-disease doctor assured the family, "We’ve got her on the right antibiotic."

With each doctor's report, Black recalled, most of her family "felt this tremendous sense of relief."

But Black, a doctor herself, knew the physicians were avoiding the truth: "She's 100 percent dying."

"It became my role," Black said, to tell her family the difficult news that her mother-in-law, who was in her mid-80s, was not going to make it out of the hospital alive. Indeed, she died there within about a week.

The experience highlights a common problem in medicine, Black said: Doctors can be so focused on trying to fix each ailment that "no one is addressing the big picture."

Kaiser Health News

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.


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