Communication between physicians and family caregivers about care at the end of life: When do discussions occur and what is said?

Emily Cherlin, Terri Fried, Holly G. Prigerson, Dena Schulman-Green, Rosemary Johnson-Hurzeler, Elizabeth H. Bradley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Few studies have examined physician-family caregiver communication at the end of life, despite the important role families have in end-of-life care decisions. We examined family caregiver reports of physician communication about incurable illness, life expectancy, and hospice; the timing of these discussions; and subsequent family understanding of these issues. Design: Mixed methods study using a closed-ended survey of 206 family caregivers and open-ended, in-depth interviews with 12 additional family caregivers. Setting/Subjects: Two hundred eighteen primary family caregivers of patients with cancer enrolled with hospice between October 1999 and June 2002 Measurements: Family caregiver reports provided at the time of hospice enrollment of physician discussions of incurable illness, life expectancy, and hospice. Results: Many family caregivers reported that a physician never told them the patient's illness could not be cured (20.8%), never provided life expectancy (40% of those reportedly told illness was incurable), and never discussed using hospice (32.2%). Caregivers reported the first discussion of the illness being incurable and of hospice as a possibility occurred within 1 month of the patient's death in many cases (23.5% and 41.1%, respectively). In open-ended interviews, however, family caregivers expressed ambivalence about what they wanted to know, and their difficulty comprehending and accepting "bad news" was apparent in both qualitative and quantitative data. Conclusion: Our findings suggest that ineffective communication about end-of-life issues likely results from both physician's lack of discussion and family caregiver's difficulty hearing the news. Future studies should examine strategies for optimal physician-family caregiver communication about incurable illness, so that families and patients can begin the physical, emotional, and spiritual work that can lead to acceptance of the irreversible condition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1176-1185
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of palliative medicine
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Nursing
  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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