Oncologists need to bear in mind that the senses of a patient with cancer “are all heightened and very tuned to subtle body language,” explained Dr. Cobos. “There is so much nonverbal communication going on between the two parties and this communication, if effective, enhances trust and respect.”

Eva Grayzel survived head and neck cancer 16 years ago and shared her experience of seeing an oncologist who failed the test of respect. “He would take a question or two then say something like, ‘I’ve been doing this for decades so just trust me’ and then push questions to the side. Now that is lack of respect,” she said, adding that patients with cancer can tell whether their oncologist really respects them as a human being or is just going through the motions as a clinician.


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“I’m lucky the experts I chose gave me all the time in the world at my appointments,” Grazel told ChemotherapyAdvisor.com. “But they also gave all their other patients the same amount of time, so waiting 3 to 4 hours was expected and acceptable because I knew I was going to be given the same courtesy.”

Improving Patient Relations

Although this study is comprised of a mixed sampling of patients with cancer (81 total), it actually reveals a great deal about oncologists. The advice from these patients to oncologists is that if oncologists embrace patients with cancer with a more generous range of emotions, patients reciprocate, said Dr. Cobos.

Dr. Cobos gave ChemotherapyAdvisor.com an exclusive list of four methods that oncologists can use to improve their relationships with patients, which may be negatively affecting their care:

  1. Take a moment to actively listen and observe. Read the nonverbal messages the patient is sending, in addition to the verbal ones.
  2. Realize that there are other experts such as counselors, psychologists, patient educators, and nurses who are part of the team. Use their expertise to help change and improve patient relationships.
  3. Do not take things personally or get defensive. In times of stress, patients will understandably get frustrated, angry, fearful, and doubtful. This is normal and oncologists need to recognize these emotions.
  4. Avoid brushing things aside, moving too hurriedly to another patient, or assigning blame. Take time to be there and show tolerance, compassion, understanding, and respect for patients with cancer.

Each of these methods harkens back to the 2006 relationship study by sharing elements found in healthy romantic relationships: listening, including others, not taking things personally, and respecting the importance of certain issues to your partner.

Dr. Edward Creagan, MD, FAAHPM, practices what he calls “a hectic palliative care hospital service” as the professor of medical oncology and the John and Roma Rouse Professor of Humanism at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Dr. Creagan told ChemotherapyAdvisor.com that, without a doubt, communication skills and empathetic listening are modifiable teachable skills and like any healthy relationship, listening—and making the time to listen—has a positive impact.