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Patients and their families.

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Family Support, Isabel Hospice, Watchmead, Welwyn Garden City, UK.


The focus of this chapter is on how clinicians can understand and communicate with the families of patients suffering from cancer. Most doctors and nurses do not have training in this area and are uncomfortable when conducting interviews with whole families. The need to extend our skills in the family context reflects the changes in the way care is provided to patients with a serious illness. We recognise the part families play in providing care and the subsequent effects on family life. The influence of systemic thinking and social construction theories has led to the acknowledgement that we are all part of systems which interact with each other and it is no longer appropriate to see the patient in isolation. The chapter will look at ideas from family therapy which can help us assess and intervene when necessary. The patient suffering from a life-threatening illness such as cancer looks to his family and friends for care and support. The management and course of the illness is affected by the involvement of the family and how they manage the stress and the effects of illness on a family member (Wright and Leahey 2000). Duhamel and Dupuis (2003) point out that there are three important factors in the management of the illness: the effects of family stress, the needs of the family as caregivers, and the effects of the role and how the family cope with the way the patient experiences his illness. This presents professionals working in the field with challenges they are often ill-equipped to deal with. Most healthcare workers have inadequate training in understanding family dynamics and even less knowledge about how to communicate effectively with whole families. Consequently, many healthcare professionals avoid couple and family interviews, feeling inadequate and helpless like the families themselves. I will address some of these issues in the chapter, firstly by examining what we now regard as the family and then by using ideas from systemic theory I will look at assessing families, the organisation of families and belief systems, concluding with communications which can bring about change in families needing our help. Families are complex, they have histories and are influenced by the past. Relationships within families have different meanings and significance not understood unless questions that we ask bring access to them; moreover, their journeys through the illness of the family member is different from that of the patients. However, the need for support/information/valuing/respect is the same. If we are to help, we need to know how to approach families, how to asses their needs, and learn about interventions that help so that we can offer holistic care which will ease the practical, physical, emotional, social and spiritual pain and suffering of the people who will go on living with the significance of the death.

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