[Skip to Navigation]
March 1991

Bad News: Delivery, Dialogue, and Dilemmas

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Medicine, The Genesee Hospital (Dr Quill), the Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry (Dr Quill), and the Visiting Nurse Service (Ms Townsend), Rochester, NY.

Arch Intern Med. 1991;151(3):463-468. doi:10.1001/archinte.1991.00400030033006

The narrative from a real patient encounter is used to illustrate the powerful effect that delivering bad news can have on both patient and physician. The meaning of bad news to the patient may be quite different than the medical or the personal meaning to the physician. Differences in perception must be explored and understood before the common ground necessary for joint decision making is established. Initial patient responses can be divided into three categories: (1) basic psychophysiologic (fight-flight or conservation-withdrawal), (2) cognitive, and (3) affective. Responses vary considerably depending on the meaning of the diagnosis to the patient, the degree of immediate threat, and the patient's previous experience with illness. Desired outcomes of the initial meeting include (1) minimizing aloneness and isolation for both patient and physician; (2) achieving a common perception of the problem; (3) giving information tailored to the immediate needs of the patient; (4) addressing immediate medical needs, including the risk of suicide; (5) responding to immediate discomforts; and (6) ensuring a basic plan for follow-up. Though all clinicians deliver bad news, few have had formal training or open exploration of the profound potential impact of the experience.

(Arch Intern Med. 1991;151:463-468)