Clinical Communication

Delivering Bad News in the Context of Culture: A Patient-Centered Approach



From the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville, VA.


  • Objective: To describe the impact of culture on delivering bad news to patients and to describe a patient-centered approach physicians can use when delivering bad news.
  • Methods: Descriptive report and discussion utilizing an illustrative case.
  • Results: Physicians often find it challenging to deliver bad news in a culturally sensitive manner. Patients vary in their preferences for how they receive bad news, both within and across cultural groups. A strategy to address these preferences is presented that integrates the ethnographic Kleinman model and the SPIKES model.
  • Conclusion: Delivering bad news is a challenging endeavor for many physicians. Strategies are available to guide clinicians through these conversations in a manner that is culturally sensitive and patient-centered.

A 52-year-old patient from Mexico is seeing his physician because he has been experiencing some fatigue and abdominal pain. The doctor asks the patient about his symptoms with the aid of an interpreter (in all the dialogues, a Spanish interpreter is present).

Doctor: How can I help you today?

Patient: I think it’s probably nothing, but my wife is worried and wanted me to see you. I don’t quite feel myself, just a little more tired than usual.

Doctor: Do you have any other symptoms?

Patient: Well, I have been having some pain in my stomach, just a little crampy feeling down low. My wife says I have lost some weight and she wanted me to see a doctor. I haven’t been eating as much as I usually do. I just don’t have much of an appetite, especially when I get the pain.

The doctor goes on to ask some additional questions and conducts a physical examination. He discovers the patient lost 20 pounds since his last visit 8 months ago. He is worried that the patient may have something serious going on, possibly colon cancer. He recommends some testing to the patient.

Doctor: I would like to do some tests to see what is going on.

Patient: What kind of tests?

Doctor: A few blood tests and a colonoscopy. Do you know what that is?

Patient: Yes, my brother had one a few years ago.

Doctor: Ok, my nurse will set that up and explain what you will need to do. We’ll schedule another appointment for you to come back to discuss the results. You mentioned your wife. Would you like her or anyone else to be with you at that appointment?

Patient: Yes, my wife and son. My son knows a lot more about medical things than I do, and I know he would want to come.

The Need for Culturally Sensitive Care

The concept of one’s culture encompasses a host of components including how an individual identifies oneself as well as the language, customs, beliefs, and value system one utilizes. Culture, in turn, profoundly affects patients’ belief systems regarding health and wellness, disease and illness, and the delivery of health care services, including the use of healers and alternative providers [1].In order to provide culturally sensitive and high-quality care to diverse patient populations, it is important for providers to gain an understanding and sensitivity to the influences of culture on patients’ beliefs and behaviors [2].

The ability to provide care to people of different cultures is more important than ever before. In 2011, the number of legal and unauthorized immigrants in the United States rose to 40.4 million (13% of the population) and between 2007 and 2011 alone, this number rose by 2.4 million [3].According to a 2010 census bureau report, in the last 30 years the number of individuals over the age of 5 who spoke a language other than English in their home more than doubled, an increase that was 4 times greater than the rate of population growth [4].In addition, in 2009 the United States resettled more refugees than any other nation (60,000+) and this number reached almost 70,000 in 2013 [5,6].Patient populations in the United States are becoming increasingly diverse, and providers must have the skills to communicate effectively with these groups. A one-size-fits-all approach is not sufficient for our changing population.

The Challenges of Delivering Bad News and the Impact of Culture

Perhaps one of the most challenging communication scenarios faced by physicians is the need to deliver bad news to a patient. “Bad news” can be described as any information that adversely alters one’s expectations for the future [7].Clinicians from nearly all specialties are confronted with the task of giving bad news [8],and this is particularly true regarding cancer care. Among oncologists, 60% reported the need to break bad news to patients between 5 to 20 times per month, with 14% reporting greater than 20 times per month [9].The concept of giving bad news is often viewed as stressful by clinicians [10], and clinicians must be able to balance a myriad of elements, including patients’ emotional responses, information needs, uncertainties of disease progression and treatments, patients’ preferred level of involvement in decision making, patient expectations, involvement of family members, and how to maintain hope, among others [9,11]. Indeed, it seems that clinicians find it difficult to take into account the full spectrum of patient needs [8]. While the descriptive literature indicates that patient satisfaction and psychological well-being is improved when a patient-centered approach is utilized that attends to the emotional needs of patients [12], clinicians often focus on biomedical information, with less focus on patients’ psychosocial needs and their level of understanding [13–15].


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