Clear Communication Leads to Better Mesothelioma Care

Doctor explains exam to patient

Most people have experienced a moment of miscommunication during a doctor’s appointment.

Sometimes it feels as though physicians and the people they treat exist in two separate worlds.

However, unified patient-physician communication is most important when families are coping with someone diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive cancer such as mesothelioma.

Patients feel better about their medical decisions when they have an opportunity to discuss options with a trusted physician. Miscommunication may lead to misjudgment regarding treatment preferences and failure to meet patient needs.

Everyone has the right to adequate care, and doctors have a duty to meet patient needs to the best of their ability.

Getting the Facts Straight

Most folks in the mesothelioma community are well versed in the complexity of treating advanced cancer.

Medical professionals, family caregivers, friends and loved ones take battle positions against cancer. A slight miscommunication can throw a wrench into a well-oiled cancer-fighting army.

Unless a patient is blessed with an oncology team that meets collectively, as some do in multidisciplinary specialty centers, good communication is imperative to keep patients and their families informed and coordinate health care services.

Adequate information is an essential building block in the foundation of patient-centered care.

Barriers to Good Communication

Erin P. Balogh, senior program officer at the University of Michigan’s National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, published an article in The Oncologist in 2011 that explains the barriers to good communication between doctors and the patients.

Barrier classifications consist of patient and physician limitations.

Patient limitations include:

  • Timidity: Social etiquette suggests we maintain politeness with professionals, including our doctors. Sometimes patients shy away from tough questions for fear of appearing rude. Respectful assertiveness is essential in the doctor’s office.
  • Lack of Health Care Knowledge: Let’s face it — cancer is complicated. Concepts discussed during an oncology visit are foreign to patients until doctors make a cancer diagnosis. Many patients find it difficult to understand medical terminology.
  • Emotional Distress: Hearing a doctor say “You have cancer” is agonizing. At times, medical appointments cause anxiety, too. The stress patients experience may cloud their focus during the visit. When patients and caregivers discuss various elements of care, staying on track can become an arduous task.
  • Additional Health Problems: Seeing multiple doctors isn’t ideal, but not all patients are blessed with a medical team that addresses all health problems. Having concurrent ailments, such as cancer coupled with cardiovascular issues or diabetes, adds more confusion and complication to treatment approaches.

While we put faith in our physicians, they are human, too. Sometimes their communication skills become obstacles that stand in the way of conveying sensitive information to the patients they treat.

For example, mesothelioma caregiver Lorraine Kember remembers the pain she felt when her husband’s doctor bluntly told them, “Mesothelioma – three to nine months, I reckon.”

The doctor’s lack of empathy explaining her husband’s mesothelioma life expectancy devastated her when she was most vulnerable.

Physician limitations include:

  • An Overbooked Schedule: We’d like to think that our doctors take their time with patients, but often, they have hectic schedules. Sometimes emergency situations negate adequate time slots. If a physician sees extra patients, it can make him or her feel rushed to get through appointments.
  • Inability to Explain Complicated Information: Some cancer-related issues are difficult to explain in layman’s terms. Doctors use language with which their patients are unfamiliar, and finding adequate word substitutes can be challenging. Teaching patients about cancer may not be one of the physician’s strong points.
  • Lack of Sensitivity: Before a doctor pairs a face with a name, people are collectively known as “patients.” It is sometimes challenging for medical professionals to consider the totality of a patient’s physical, emotional and cultural needs. A physician’s sense of urgency might conflict with a desire to become well acquainted with patients.

Humans are complicated beings, and many different elements factor into our well-being. Addressing all aspects of health is difficult for doctors and patients. Complex treatment options, diagnosis-related patient emotions, and the need for rapid physician responses further hinder patient-physician communication.

Closing the Communication Divide

The Journal of Pain Symptom Management asserts that around 80 percent of advanced-cancer patients would rather just hear the cold-hard facts regarding their prognosis and treatment options. Medical professionals and cancer patients alike are eager to find common ground regarding communication.

In 2013, the National Cancer Institute sponsored an ongoing study regarding patient-physician communication. The research involves oncology communication intervention called Values and Options in Cancer Care (VOICE).

Although the VOICE study is still in its infancy, it sheds light on the urgent need for open lines of communication between doctors and the people they treat.

Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardoza hit the nail in on the head in 1914, when he said, “Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body.”

Patients and their loved ones can make more informed decisions regarding mesothelioma treatment when armed with the facts and the means to gather those facts.

  1. Balogh, E. P., Ganz, P. A., Murphy, S. B., Nass, S. J., Ferrell, B. R., & Stovall, E. (2011). Patient-Centered Cancer Treatment Planning: Improving the Quality of Oncology Care. Summary of an Institute of Medicine Workshop. The Oncologist, 16(12), 1800–1805. http://doi.org/10.1634/theoncologist.2011-0252
  2. Hoerger, M., Epstein, R.M., Winters, P.C., Fiscella, K., Duberstein, P.R., et al. (2013, April). Values and options in cancer care (VOICE): study design and rationale for a patient-centered communication and decision-making intervention for physicians, patients with advanced cancer, and their caregivers.. BMC Cancer, 13(188).
  3. Parker S.M., Clayton J.M., Hancock K., et al: A systematic review of prognostic/end-of-life communication with adults in advanced stages of a life-limiting illness: Patient/caregiver preferences for the content, style, and timing of information. Journal of Pain Symptom Management 2007, 34:81–93.

Melanie is currently pursuing a Master's degree at the University of the Cumberlands. She has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Phoenix. Her father was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1992. She is dedicated to writing about her unique experience with the rare disease.

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