An Old Post on Breaking Bad News

I’m reposting a piece about a sense of humor and breaking bad news to patients I first wrote for my old blog, The Practical Psychosomaticist about a dozen years ago. I still believe it’s relevant today. The excerpt from Mark Twain is priceless. Because it was published before 1923 (See Mark Twain’s Sketches, published in 1906, on google books) it’s also in the public domain, according to the Mark Twain Project.

Blog: A Sense of Humor is a Wonderful Thing

Most of my colleagues in medicine and psychiatry have a great sense of humor and Psychosomaticists particularly so. I’ll admit I’m biased, but so what? Take issues of breaking bad news, for example. Doctors frequently have to give their patients bad news. Some of do it well and others not so well. As a psychiatric consultant, I’ve occasionally found myself in the awkward position of seeing a cancer patient who has a poor prognosis—and who apparently doesn’t know that because the oncologist has declined to inform her about it. This may come as a shock to some. We’re used to thinking of that sort of paternalism as being a relic of bygone days because we’re so much more enlightened about informed consent, patient centered care, consumer focus with full truth disclosure, the right of patients to know and participate in their care and all that. I can tell you that paternalism is not a relic of bygone days.

Anyway, Mark Twain has a great little story about this called “Breaking It Gently”. A character named Higgins, (much like some doctors I’ve known) is charged with breaking the bad news of old Judge Bagley’s death to his widow. She’s completely unaware that her husband broke his neck and died after falling down the court-house stairs.  After the judge’s body is loaded into Higgins’ wagon, Higgins is reminded to give Mrs. Bagley the sad news gently, to be “very guarded and discreet” and to do it “gradually and gently”. What follows is the exchange between Higgins and the now- widowed Mrs. Bagley after he shouts to her from his wagon[1]:

“Does the widder Bagley live here?”

“The widow Bagley? No, Sir!”

“I’ll bet she does. But have it your own way. Well, does Judge Bagley live here?”

“Yes, Judge Bagley lives here”.

“I’ll bet he don’t. But never mind—it ain’t for me to contradict. Is the Judge in?”

“No, not at present.”

“I jest expected as much. Because, you know—take hold o’suthin, mum, for I’m a-going to make a little communication, and I reckon maybe it’ll jar you some. There’s been an accident, mum. I’ve got the old Judge curled up out here in the wagon—and when you see him you’ll acknowledge, yourself, that an inquest is about the only thing that could be a comfort to him!”

That’s an example of the wrong way to break bad news, and something similar or worse still goes on in medicine even today. One of the better models is the SPIKES protocol[2]. Briefly, it goes like this:

Set up the interview, preferably so that both the physician and the patient are seated and allowing for time to connect with each other.

Perception assessment, meaning actively listening for what the patient already knows or thinks she knows.

Invite the patient to request more information about their illness and be ready to sensitively provide it.

Knowledge provided by the doctor in small, manageable chunks, who will avoid cold medical jargon.

Emotions should be acknowledged with empathic responses.

Summarize and set a strategy for future visits with the patient, emphasizing that the doctor will be there for the patient.

Gauging a sense of humor is one element among many of a thorough assessment by any psychiatrist. How does one teach that to interns, residents, and medical students? There’s no simple answer. It helps if there were good role models by a clinician-educator’s own teachers. One of mine was not even a physician.  In the early 1970s when I was an undergraduate at Huston Tillotson University (when it was still Huston-Tillotson College), the faculty would occasionally put on an outrageous little talent show for the students in the King Seabrook Chapel. The star, in everyone’s opinion, was Dr. Jenny Lind Porter, who taught English. The normally staid and dignified Dr. Porter did a drop-dead strip tease while reciting classical poetry and some of her own ingenious inventions. Yes, in the chapel. Yes, the niece of author O. Henry; the Poet Laureate of Texas appointed in 1964 by then Texas Governor John Connally; the only woman to receive the Distinguished Diploma of Honor from Pepperdine University in 1979; yes, the Dr. Porter in the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame—almost wearing a very little glittering gold something or other.

It helps to be able to laugh at yourself.

1.       Twain, M., et al., Mark Twain’s helpful hints for good living: a handbook for the damned human race. 2004, Berkeley: University of California Press. xiv, 207 p.

2.       Baile, W.F., et al., SPIKES-A six-step protocol for delivering bad news: application to the patient with cancer. Oncologist, 2000. 5(4): p. 302-11.

Author: James Amos

I'm a retired consult-liaison psychiatrist. I navigated the path in a phased retirement program through the hospital where I was employed. I was fully retired as of June 30, 2020. This blog chronicles my journey.

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