At least 30 seconds had passed, and we were still sitting with our mouths open, unable to speak or move. Should we say something? Should we leave?
Moments earlier a patient had arrived in clinic to see his consultant, whose consultations I was observing along with a fellow medical student. We shook hands with the patient before returning to our seats in the corner. After a few minutes of light conversation, mainly from the patient, the topic of conversation changed to the patient’s improving chronic condition. The patient seemed positive.
Unexpectedly, the consultant turned to me and my colleague and asked whether the patient’s chronic condition could be cured overnight. We looked uncomfortably at each other, and at the patient, before slowly shaking our heads. “No, not that we know . . .”, but before we could finish muttering our excuses the consultant turned sharply in his chair and told the patient that his organs were failing; that his chronic condition could not be cured.
After seamlessly delivering these verbal blows, the consultant quietly returned to typing in the notes on his computer while the patient began to cry. The poor patient did not want to hang around, and the consultation was over in a flash. Little was explained to him and the small amount that was must have passed over him as his mind dealt with the utter disappointment of the consultation. The situation felt surreal, and as I’ve progressed through medical school the experience has stayed with me and has struck me as more and more unacceptable as time passes.
I have received teaching on delivering bad news, which was helpful. I only hope that practising doctors—no matter what level they are at—have had similar training and continue to respect it. It is understandable that teaching students to break bad news is not a top priority for medical school curriculums because we are not expected to be the bearer of it for many years down the line. I think it is extremely important, however, that we develop an awareness of situations such as this, which rely on empathy and good communication.
A decline in empathy and the “caring nature” of healthcare professionals has been highlighted in recent years as a problem leading to the degradation of quality in patient care  Although centred mainly on issues with nursing, the controversy at Mid Staffordshire Hopsital has alerted the public of a growing weed within healthcare—it is becoming more important to follow protocols and save time than it is to care for the holistic health of our patients. As much as knowledge, teaching good communication and consideration for our patients’ emotions is imperative to make the doctors of the future.Lucy Myint, final year medical student
1University of Nottingham
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Patient consent not required (patient anonymised, dead, or hypothetical).
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
- BBC News. Drug addicts criticise “uncaring” doctors. BBC News, 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/1641667.stm.
- .Sawyer. P. My father died because of lack of care. Telegraph 2011. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8829335/My-father-died-because-of-lack-of-care.html.
- BBC News. Nurse struck off for Stafford Hospital death. BBC News, 2013. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-stoke-staffordshire-24174040.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2013;21:f7384