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J Palliat Med. 2016 Jan;19(1):101-7. doi: 10.1089/jpm.2015.0292. Epub 2015 Nov 17.

Teaching Surgery Residents the Skills to Communicate Difficult News to Patient and Family Members: A Literature Review.

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1 Department of Emergency Medicine, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School , Newark, New Jersey.
2 Department of Surgery, Rutgers New Jersey Medical School , Newark, New Jersey.



Trainees and practicing physicians alike find breaking bad, sad, or difficult news to a patient or family member as one of the most challenging communication tasks they perform. Interpersonal and communication skills are a core competency for resident training. However, in disciplines where technical skills have a major emphasis, such as surgery, the teaching of communication skills may not be a priority.


The objective of our study is to review literature in order to identify best practices and learning modalities used to teach surgery trainees the communication skills regarding delivery of difficult news to patients and family members.


The criteria for inclusion in this literature review were that the study (1) addresses surgeons' training (nontechnical skills) in breaking difficult news to patient and/or families, (2) describes a teaching modality or intervention targeted to teach surgery residents how to deliver difficult news to patient/family, and (3) is published in English.


Articles (nā€‰=ā€‰225) were screened for final eligibility. After discarding duplicates and noneligible studies, and after abstract/full-text review, 18 articles were included in the final analysis. Most studies are single site; address general surgery residents at varying training levels; and include case-specific, outpatient, and intensive care unit (ICU) settings. There is a paucity of studies in the trauma and unexpected death setting. There is a recent trend to use Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) both to teach and assess communication skills. Variable tools are used to assess this competency as described.


Simulation and OSCE format have emerged as modalities of choice both to teach surgery residents how to deliver difficult news and to assess achievement of this competency. There is a gap in the literature regarding teaching and assessing surgery resident communication skills in delivering difficult news after unexpected events in the trauma and operating room settings.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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