The goals of communicating bad news in health care: do physicians and patients agree?

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Communicating bad news serves different goals in health care, and the extent to which physicians and patients agree on the goals of these conversations may influence their process and outcomes. However, we know little about what goals physicians and patients perceive as important and how the perceptions of physicians and patients compare.


To compare physicians’ and patients’ perceptions of the importance of different communication goals in bad news conversations.


Survey-based descriptive study.


Physicians in California recruited via a medical board mailing list (n = 67) and patients (n = 77) recruited via mailing lists and snowball recruitment methods.


Physicians reported their experience communicating bad news, the extent to which they strive for various goals in this task and their perceptions of the goals important to patients. Patients reported their experience receiving bad news, the goals important to them and their perceptions of the goals important to physicians.

Main results

Physicians and patients were quite similar in how important they personally rated each goal. However, the two groups perceived differences between their values and the values of the other group.


Physicians and patients have similar perceptions of the importance of various goals of communicating bad news, but inaccurate perceptions of the importance of particular goals to the other party. These findings raise important questions for future research and clinical practice.

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