In virtually every healthcare setting there are times when the provider has to deliver bad news. When they know that the recipients will be shocked, disappointed or even devastated. There is an art to delivering difficult messages that I call the “kind truth.” People who are skilled at this are often trusted above all others.
The kind truth is when you have the skill to deliver tough information, yet it is done with compassion and empathy. Additionally, the deliverer manages this while being fully prepared to accept whatever emotional response results from the recipients. I’ve witnessed some of the best and worst of this in the past few weeks. One doctor, meeting my mother for the first time basically dropped a verdict and ran. His dismissive behavior was cold and uncaring at best. He basically told her, “Oh well, what do you expect. You’re not a well woman.” On the other hand, I observed two of her other physicians discuss similar information with compassion, empathy, and genuine concern. Same medical information delivered in very different ways.
Every healthcare professional needs to master the art of the kind truth. When I was doing bedside nursing I observed some of the best and worst at this. I remember three physicians in particular that I could have nicknamed duck, dodge, and dive because all three had their own techniques for avoiding the truth altogether. Then there was one whose bedside manner was like a weapon of mass destruction. He’d drop an information bomb and flee the scene. But on rare occasions, I’d have the pleasure of witnessing someone gently deliver bad news with such kindness that I was awestruck.
The odd thing was that everyone knew who was good at it and who wasn’t. As nurses, we had just learned to compensate for them. It was a tough job.
I recognize that not everyone has a high degree of emotional intelligence, but I think we owe it to our patients to act on their behalf. If we see a provider deliver difficult information without compassion, we must intervene by helping them to improve. In doing so you’ll be delivering the kind truth, as well. Many organizations have physician coaching services that can help build awareness and communication skills. If you are reading this, you are very likely a champion for great patient experiences. Let’s all take that passion to the next level and pledge to take action when we see unsatisfactory encounters. Commit to the kind truth.