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BMJ Open. 2013 Jan 16;3(1). pii: e002144. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-002144.

Recognising the importance of 'family time-out' in consultations: an exploratory qualitative study.

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  • 1School of Social and Community Medicine, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.



Patients are often accompanied by family or companions during consultations, but little is known about how this might influence the process. We explored how the presence of a companion in a consultation contributes to communication and the decision-making process.


Observational study.


A teaching hospital and a district general hospital in south-west England.


31 patients and their physicians were observed during consultations in which decisions to undergo palliative chemotherapy were made. Each patient was accompanied by at least one companion.


Communication patterns between physicians, patients and companions.


In addition to standard patient/physician interactions, patients and companions were often found to discuss medical information and exchange opinions between themselves without the physician actively participating. We called these instances 'family time-out'. On the occasion of disagreement between patients and companions about preferred treatment options, physicians and patients were able to agree the decision while acknowledging the differences in opinion.


Instances of 'family time-out' may contribute to better consultation outcomes because they are understood and supported by the patient's social system. This study highlights the potentially important role of exchanges between patients and companions during consultations and how physicians may benefit from observation of such exchanges. We recommend testing the value of making space for family time-out during consultations. Also, we recommend further study into the medical ethics of family time-out. While the focus here is on palliative chemotherapy, this finding has implications for other consultations, particularly those involving difficult treatment decisions.

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