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Study: Majority of women receive breast cancer diagnosis over the phone

According to a new study, more and more people are learning about their cancer diagnosis through reports on their phones. (MU Health Care)

A new study from the University of Missouri School of Medicine revealed an increasing number of women are learning about their breast cancer diagnosis over the phone.

Researchers surveyed nearly 2,900 breast cancer patients who were diagnosed between 1967 and 2017. The research revealed prior to 2007, about 25 percent of patients learned of their diagnosis over the telephone. After 2007, that number increased to more than 50 percent. Since 2015, that number has grown to 60 percent.

“When we analyzed the data, I was completely surprised to find such a clear trend,” said Jane McElroy, PhD, professor of family and community medicine at the MU School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “Historically, physicians have decided to use their best judgment when delivering a diagnosis, whether it’s in person or over the phone. Nowadays, some patients clearly want to hear this information over the phone.”

Talking with patients in person about a serious illness or disease has been considered best practice at hospitals and medical schools across the country, including at MU Health Care. However, McElroy’s research has prompted changes to the MU School of Medicine’s curriculum for medical students.

“We are now including additional training for first-year medical students to talk about situations and techniques for breaking bad news over the phone,” said Natalie Long, MD, assistant professor of clinical family and community medicine at the MU School of Medicine. “The digital age has changed our perception of how we want to get news. I think younger patients just want to know news faster.”

Many of the same principals taught for delivering bad news in person can be applied to phone conversations, according to Long. The key is learning beforehand how the patient wishes to be informed. Best practices include making sure the patient is in a good place to talk, using good listening skills, showing empathy, ensuring the patient has a support system around them and developing a follow-up plan.

“Anytime you break bad news, patients only hear a fraction of what you tell them,” Long said. “So, that’s where the follow up is really important.”

The study, “Breaking Bad News of a Breast Cancer Diagnosis over the Telephone: An Emerging Trend,” was recently published in Supportive Care in Cancer.

For more information on the study, click here.

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