How to handle bad news from your doctor

bad news doctor diagnosis

By Matthias Muenzer, M.D.
Medford and Melrose OB/GYN

bad news doctor diagnosis

Shock and anger are common and normal when receiving bad news. But it’s important to be open to learning during this time, too.

It’s almost inevitable that at some point you’ll have to deal with bad news or a scary diagnosis from a doctor. While it’s easy to read articles offering “tips for dealing with bad news,” when you get that news and you’re scared, all that advice can fly out of the brain pretty quickly.

I’ve been in this position many times, both as a doctor and as a patient. I know what it feels like to deliver and receive bad news. There will be a period of shock and maybe even a period of anger. That’s completely normal. It’s important for your health, though, to focus on learning in this difficult time, as well as to find a peaceful place deep inside to focus on and help you remain calm and balanced.

Let’s take a look at two strategies I’ve used over the years to help my patients cope with bad news.

The practical strategy: Learn as much as you can

When I have to deliver a less-than-positive diagnosis, my first priority is to answer patients’ questions. Often they’re afraid, and learning about their condition can help them come to terms with what’s happened and what the next steps should be. Just having a clear view of the facts can be calming.

Sometimes they find their fear is unfounded, and we can perform a simple procedure to fix the problem. But when the patient has to deal with a long-term problem, they’re likely to have more questions and be more afraid. In these cases, having as many facts as possible can help them accept the diagnosis and decrease their anxiety.

When patients are upset, I ask, “What are you concerned about or afraid of?” I usually have to ask them a few times before they tell me because they might be embarrassed. Often, these patients want to keep up strong appearances and be tough about the news. Being afraid is not the same as being weak. It’s brave to ask questions and battle your fears with knowledge.

And it’s extremely important to ask questions if you don’t understand something. When doctors don’t explain a diagnosis and next steps in terms you can understand, it can make an already stressful situation worse. Never be ashamed to tell your provider, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Can you explain it to me in simpler language?” Keep asking questions until you do understand.

It’s also a good idea to bring someone with you to record important facts during these appointments. You may be unable to focus on the details because you’re distracted by the news or fears. A companion can make sure the information your doctor provides is clearly recorded for you to refer back later when you have more questions or find yourself unable to remember the answers you received during your appointment.

The spiritual strategy: Find the peace within

Regardless if you’re religious, most of us have a spiritual belief or connection with ourselves and the world around us. When something bad happens to us, we fall back on these spiritual beliefs.

For example, I believe that inside each of us is an eternal consciousness. There is something inside us that makes us who we are and that makes us unique. In our inner consciousness, we don’t think; we simply exist. In sickness and health, that part of us is always there – we just have to be sure to connect with it more consciously when we’re afraid or unwell. When I receive bad news, I remind myself that I may not be able to control the future, but I can control what I do right now.

Some people do this by practicing mindful meditation. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Physical exercise, such as yoga, running, or biking
  • Communing with nature, such as taking a walk through the woods

By connecting with our inner selves, we open ourselves to optimism and acceptance of positive “vibes” from the world around us. Focusing on ourselves can help relieve the mind of worry and fear, helps us concentrate on what is most important in the “now” moment, and keeps our minds clear as we look at future action.

Neither strategy will always be easy to put into practice. It’s impossible to control your emotions in every situation – that’s part of what makes us human. However, if you incorporate practical learning and spiritual searching into your daily life, relying on them in times of hardship may become less of a coping mechanism and more of a reflex to help keep your mind clear and calm.

Tags: children's health, compassionate, family health, family medicine, geriatrics, internal medicine, malden, meditation, men's health, OB/GYN, women's health

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