More cancer patients getting bad news over the phone

It's news that no one wants to hear, "You've got cancer."

But a recent study shows fewer patients are getting that news in person as the digital age is changing the way doctors break bad news.

After mammograms or an ultrasound, testing moves on to a biopsy. After a long and scary process, patients wait to hear the news.
And if there's bad news to break, doctors say, ideally, it should be done face-to-face.

"You're able to look at someone, you're able to see how are they reacting to the news, and change how you're delivering things based on that," said Dr. Natalie Long.

But more and more frequently, patients and doctors are opting for a phone call instead.


Researchers at the University of Missouri School of Medicine surveyed nearly 2,900 breast cancer patients.
In 2000, about a quarter of patients learned about their diagnosis over the telephone. By 2005, 50 percent received the news that way. And in 2015, the number climbed to more than 65 percent.

"I could speculate that part of it is the digital age. I think that these days, people are more interested, more connected, more used to getting information more instantaneously. And so that transcends to health care," said Dr. Jane McElroy.

In addition, test results are often made available to patients online.

"I think the first thing we need to do is have that conversation with the patient - 'How do you wanna hear?'" said Dr. McElroy.

The study has prompted professors at the school of medicine to change the way they teach future physicians, preparing them to have tough conversations over the phone.

"You still need to really check in and make sure that you're addressing emotions, being empathetic, listening, and then setting a follow-up appointment to talk about it in person is really critical," said Dr. Long.

The study also found that among patients who heard the news in person, about 40 percent were alone at the appointment.