How to Cope After Delivering a Life-Altering Diagnosis

A dreadful diagnosis directly impacts the person delivering the news and the person receiving it.

The feeling of sorrow when you have to deliver a life-altering diagnosis, from terminal illness to chronic condition, can be overwhelming, and it never gets any easier.

Delivering a life-altering diagnosis will affect the mental health and overall well-being of healthcare professionals. Knowing this, they can take the necessary steps and precautions to protect their mental health while empathizing with the patient and allowing them to grieve life as they knew it.


Delivering a Life-Altering Diagnosis

Even when not terminal, a life-altering diagnosis completely changes how a person will live from this day forward. 

Many patients struggling with symptoms may have suspicions about what their condition might be. Others might be at a loss and hope their healthcare professionals will deliver a swift solution.

Many professionals struggle with delivering grave diagnoses because they fear their patients’ emotional responses. Some patients break down into tears, while others may lash out in anger. 

There is no way to prepare and perfect a response in these situations. A helpful way to prepare yourself to deliver a life-altering diagnosis is to use the SPIKES method.

●     Set up the interview. Plan ahead for the meeting with the patient and their caregivers. Take at least a moment to prepare yourself. Even if there is no chance to prepare, you can always find time to take a deep breath, close your eyes, and imagine a caring scene. I find this helps many of my clients to set a positive tone despite the news. 

●     Perception. What questions are they likely to ask? How can you help them during this time? Remember, this is about them and not you. 

●     Invite the patient to learn more. Patients want to feel in control over their diagnosis, so providing tools and resources surrounding their illness will help them. Ask questions such as “Would it be helpful for you to learn more about what to expect from your illness next?”

●     Knowledge. It can be helpful to signal the severity of the diagnosis by using phrases like, “The results from your tests are more serious than we hoped for.” Then, give the information in smaller fragments, leaving space for them to process and ask questions.

●     Empathy and Emotion. Be empathetic, recognize their suffering, and help them in the present. They may not be able to take the information in right away.

●     Summarize and Strategize. Create closure by directing the conversation into an active response. Let the patient know that you, as their doctor, are there ready to help. The following steps may include referrals to specialists or palliative care. Always provide a way to get in touch with you when they get home and suddenly have many questions.


Short-Term Impact

After delivering a life-changing diagnosis, you may feel shaken, stressed, anxious, and even grief-stricken. If you need to, give yourself a moment to unwind.

Knowing that your patient’s condition is beyond your control can be very humbling. Focus on what you can do – such as alleviating the pain and increasing the quality of life. 


Long-Term Impact

The long-term impact of delivering a life-altering diagnosis can range from grief to depression, causing someone to question the choice to become a physician. The stress can also take a toll on your physical health and personal relationships.


The Impact on Mental Health

As a doctor, looking after your mental health is integral to giving your patients the care they deserve. If you cannot tend to your needs, it becomes much harder to be emotionally present and empathetic toward anyone else.

It is difficult as a physician to know that you can’t help your patients as much as you would like. It can be even more painful when patients express misplaced anger or disappointment in you.

If you could cure their ailments, you would. But if that isn’t possible, you must focus on what challenges you can alleviate for them.


Building a Support Network

Support networks vary from online groups to in-person relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. You may utilize resources in the workplace, such as mental health and behavioral services, or seek a personal coach or therapist to help you work through the trauma of being the ‘bearer of bad news.’

Confiding in others in healthcare is also beneficial because they understand the unique struggles you’re facing and can help you work through your experience with a deeper level of empathy. 

When I help doctors navigate the complexities of their careers, I notice how we’re always prepared for the highs of practicing medicine. Handling the lows can challenge us in ways we never imagined.

Contact me today for a free how to become more comfortable handling difficult situations in your medical practice call.