Resource: discussing suspected cancer symptoms over the phone

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Thursday 7th May 2020

Discussing suspected cancer symptoms over the phone can be challenging. To navigate this, we have created a downloadable PDF resource for primary care teams, in partnership with The Maguire Communication Skills Training Unit. This resource covers five important principles:

1. Eliciting the patient’s perception is key

If a patient is already worried that their symptoms might indicate something serious, it will allow you to gently acknowledge and confirm that their symptoms are cause for concern and will need to be investigated further. This is much easier for the patient to manage than if the information is introduced cold.

Because there are no visual cues on the phone this makes listening for verbal cues doubly important. Listen for tone of voice, sighs, silence, words or phrases that suggest a difficult emotion, worry or concern.

2. Warning shots

Prefaced with words such as “unfortunately”, “sadly”, “I’m afraid” followed by a pause will help people to prepare for the information/bad news whether or not they suspect.

3. Deliver the news with compassion and honesty

Bad news is bad news and people will be upset. However your kindness and compassion can make a huge difference to how they cope. Pause frequently to allow information to be absorbed.

4. Empathise

Verbally acknowledging people’s feelings and worries helps to reduce their distress and anxiety. This is showing a high level of compassion.

5. Acknowledge and clarify questions

Once you have acknowledged the new emotions, find out the fears and worries before providing reassurance or further information.

Further information and next steps can be discussed when the person has had opportunity to voice their concerns and questions.

Find out more:

  • Download The Maguire Communication Skills Training Unit’s resource here

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