Quality

Ask-Tell-Ask: Simple Technique Can Help Hospitalists Communicate Difficult Messages


 

Sometimes a hospitalist is put in the difficult position of communicating information that involves bad news—for instance, a poor prognosis to a patient or clarifying treatment options and goals for care to a family member of a patient with an advanced illness. A workshop at HM12 offered a technique that hospitalists can use to convey such difficult messages.

“Ask-Tell-Ask” is a back-and-forth cycle between the patient and health professional that addresses four essential components: the patient’s perspective, information that needs to be delivered, response to the patient’s emotions, and recommendations by the professional.

If there is a big emotion in the room, and it hasn’t been addressed, it doesn’t matter what you teach the patient. You’ll never get to the underlying problems.


—Kristen Schaefer, MD, palliative-care physician, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston

“In the setting of an advanced illness, the patient’s perspective needs to be more fully explored so that we can figure out what information they need and want,” says Kristen Schaefer, MD, a palliative-care physician and director of residency education at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who spoke at an HM12 workshop. “That communication needs to be multidirectional to promote shared decision-making. All of these communication techniques are based on a better understanding of the patient’s perspective, but with Ask-Tell-Ask, you are clarifying their emotional response to illness, their values and personal goals in life, and how they cope with setbacks.”

Physicians should always start in an open-ended way, asking questions and listening to the response, Dr. Schaefer explains. “Then you can tailor the information you provide to what they have told you. There’s always emotional content around these issues, and you need to clarify that emotion,” she says. “If there is a big emotion in the room, and it hasn’t been addressed, it doesn’t matter what you teach the patient. You’ll never get to the underlying problems.”

Another effective technique, Dr. Schaefer says, is the judicious use of silence. She says healthcare providers can learn to listen more, talk less, and always start with the patient’s perspective as the basis for communication.

“It makes for more satisfying work—and it’s also more effective,” she says.

Larry Beresford is a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif.