Oncologists' strategies and barriers to effective communication about the end of life Academic Article uri icon


  • Purpose: Communicating about the end of life with patients has been reported as one of the most difficult and stressful part of the work of oncologists. Despite this fact, oncologists receive little training in this area, and many do not communicate effectively with patients. The purpose of this analysis, part of a larger study examining oncologists’ experiences of patient loss, was to explore oncologists’ communication strategies and communication barriers when discussing end-of-life issues with patients. Methods: Twenty oncologists were interviewed at three hospitals about their communication strategies on end-of-life issues with patients. The data were analyzed using the grounded theory method. Results: The findings revealed the strategies to effective communication about the end of life included: being open and honest; having ongoing, early conversations; communicating about modifying treatment goals; and balancing hope and reality. Barriers to implementing these strategies fell broadly into three domains, including physician factors, patient factors, and institutional factors. Physician factors included difficulty with treatment and palliation, personal discomfort with death and dying, diffusion of responsibility among colleagues, using the “death-defying mode,” lack of experience, and lack of mentorship. Patient factors included, patients and/or families being reluctant to talk about the end of life, language barriers, and younger age. Institutional factors included stigma around palliative care, lack of protocol about end-of-life issues; and lack of training for oncologists on how to talk with patients about endof-life issues. Conclusion: We conclude by drawing implications from our study and suggest that further research and intervention are necessary to aid oncologists in achieving effective communication about end-of-life issues.

publication date

  • January 1, 2013