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Negative emotions in cancer care: do oncologists' responses depend on severity and type of emotion?

Kennifer SL, Alexander SC, Pollak KI, Jeffreys AS, Olsen MK, Rodriguez KL, Arnold RM, Tulsky JA. Negative emotions in cancer care: do oncologists' responses depend on severity and type of emotion? Patient education and counseling. 2009 Jul 1; 76(1):51-6.

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OBJECTIVE: To examine how type and severity of patients'' negative emotions influence oncologists'' responses and subsequent conversations. METHODS: We analyzed 264 audio-recorded conversations between advanced cancer patients and their oncologists. Conversations were coded for patients'' expressions of negative emotion, which were categorized by type of emotion and severity. Oncologists'' responses were coded as using either empathic language or blocking and distancing approaches. RESULTS: Patients presented fear more often than anger or sadness; severity of disclosures was most often moderate. Oncologists responded to 35% of these negative emotional disclosures with empathic language. They were most empathic when patients presented intense emotions. Responding empathically to patients'' emotional disclosures lengthened discussions by an average of only 21s. CONCLUSION: Greater response rates to severe emotions suggest oncologists may recognize negative emotions better when patients express them more intensely. Oncologists were least responsive to patient fear and responded with greatest empathy to sadness. PRACTICE IMPLICATIONS: Oncologists may benefit from additional training to recognize negative emotions, even when displayed without intensity. Teaching cancer patients to better articulate their emotional concerns may also enhance patient-oncologist communication.

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