Posted in after the diagnosis, coping with chronic illness, coping with life threatening illness, living with chronic illness, Living with Illness

Mastery in 20 Minutes?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about physician training and talking to doctors about their medical school experience.  What has intrigued me most is their training on the soft skills of medicine, namely communication with the patient.  Most of us with health issues are seeing specialists that were probably trained in the 80’s and early 90’s so even though medical education is evolving we haven’t seen the new breed of doctor break out of the script they’ve been given.

Overwhelmingly I’ve been told that most medical students receive from 20 minutes to one hour of education on how to deliver bad news.  This usually is on two fronts; delivering a diagnosis to a patient and telling a family that the patient died.  I’ve taken various trainings on delivering a diagnosis and death notification and I can tell you with over twelve hours of training I would have like more.  So what can you learn sufficiently or at the expert level in 20 minutes?

It’s this lack of training that drives a wedge between patients and their doctors.  We hope that when the doctor has to deliver bad news they can put aside their own feelings of dread and show compassion instead of wearing their grim reaper mask from Halloween and sharing the news in a matter-of-fact fashion.

Think about your own jobs and professions.  If you received 20 minutes of training and felt you needed more wouldn’t you seek it out?  Wouldn’t you have discussions with classmates, especially during rotations, and discuss the good and bad ways of delivering bad news?  Wouldn’t you play the empathy game and think about how you would like to be told that you had a chronic or life-threatening illness and take that information and use it in practice?  This isn’t rocket science…it’s human connection.

Until medical education understands the important of soft skills; it’s up to us patients to be the doctor’s teacher.  If they aren’t delivering the news compassionately or with a sense of humanity, then it’s time to call them on the carpet.  Maybe the doctors should be mandated to watch William Hurt’s movie “The Doctor” where a leading doctor gets cancer and feels first hand what it’s like to become a patient.

How were you told about your diagnosis?  What could the doctor have done differently?  What words of wisdom would you like to share with the medical profession?


I've lived my life in service to others. I'm focused on mental health and how it impacts our relationships, culture, and society. Through creative expression and narrative I believe we can impact change.

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