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Are courses aimed at improving the way doctors and nurses communicate with patients with cancer helpful?

Moore PM, Rivera Mercado S, Grez Artigues M, Lawrie TA
Published Online: 
28 March 2013

People with cancer, and those who care for them, often suffer from psychological stress which may be reduced by effective communication and support from their attending doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional (HCP). Research suggests communication skills do not reliably improve with experience, therefore, considerable effort is dedicated to courses to improve communication skills for HCPs involved in cancer care. Many different types of communication skills training (CST) courses have been proposed and are in practice. We conducted this review to determine whether CST works and which types of CST, if any, are the most effective.

We found 15 studies to include in this review. All of these studies except one were conducted in nurses and doctors. To measure the impact of CST, some studies used encounters with real patients and some used role-players (simulated patients). We found that CST significantly improved some of the communication skills used by healthcare workers, including using 'open questions' in the interview to gather information and showing empathy as a way of supporting their patients. Other communication skills evaluated showed no significant differences between the HCPs who received the training and those who did not. We did not find evidence to suggest any benefits of CST to patients' mental and physical health, patient satisfaction levels or quality of life, however, few studies addressed these outcomes. Furthermore, it is not clear whether the improvement in HCP communication skills is sustained over time and which types of CST are best.