Are courses aimed at improving the way doctors and nurses communicate with patients with cancer helpful?

People with cancer, and those who care for them, often suffer from psychological stress which may be reduced by effective communication and support from their attending doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional (HCP). Research suggests communication skills do not reliably improve with experience, therefore, considerable effort is dedicated to courses to improve communication skills for HCPs involved in cancer care. Many different types of communication skills training (CST) courses have been proposed and are in practice. We conducted this review to determine whether CST works and which types of CST, if any, are the most effective.

We found 15 studies to include in this review. All of these studies except one were conducted in nurses and doctors. To measure the impact of CST, some studies used encounters with real patients and some used role-players (simulated patients). We found that CST significantly improved some of the communication skills used by healthcare workers, including using 'open questions' in the interview to gather information and showing empathy as a way of supporting their patients. Other communication skills evaluated showed no significant differences between the HCPs who received the training and those who did not. We did not find evidence to suggest any benefits of CST to patients' mental and physical health, patient satisfaction levels or quality of life, however, few studies addressed these outcomes. Furthermore, it is not clear whether the improvement in HCP communication skills is sustained over time and which types of CST are best.

Authors' conclusions: 

Various CST courses appear to be effective in improving some types of HCP communication skills related to information gathering and supportive skills. We were unable to determine whether the effects of CST are sustained over time, whether consolidation sessions are necessary, and which types of CST programs are most likely to work. We found no evidence to support a beneficial effect of CST on HCP 'burnout', patients' mental or physical health, and patient satisfaction.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

This is an updated version of a review that was originally published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews in 2004, Issue 2. People with cancer, their families and carers have a high prevalence of psychological stress which may be minimised by effective communication and support from their attending healthcare professionals (HCPs). Research suggests communication skills do not reliably improve with experience, therefore, considerable effort is dedicated to courses that may improve communication skills for HCPs involved in cancer care. A variety of communication skills training (CST) courses have been proposed and are in practice. We conducted this review to determine whether CST works and which types of CST, if any, are the most effective.

Objectives: 

To assess whether CST is effective in improving the communication skills of HCPs involved in cancer care, and in improving patient health status and satisfaction.

Search strategy: 

We searched the following electronic databases: Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) Issue 2, 2012, MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycInfo and CINAHL to February 2012. The original search was conducted in November 2001. In addition, we handsearched the reference lists of relevant articles and relevant conference proceedings for additional studies.

Selection criteria: 

The original review was a narrative review that included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and controlled before-and-after studies. In this updated version, we limited our criteria to RCTs evaluating 'CST' compared with 'no CST' or other CST in HCPs working in cancer care. Primary outcomes were changes in HCP communication skills measured in interactions with real and/or simulated patients with cancer, using objective scales. We excluded studies whose focus was communication skills in encounters related to informed consent for research.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently assessed trials and extracted data to a pre-designed data collection form. We pooled data using the random-effects model and, for continuous data, we used standardised mean differences (SMDs).

Main results: 

We included 15 RCTs (42 records), conducted mainly in outpatient settings. Eleven studies compared CST with no CST intervention, three studies compared the effect of a follow-up CST intervention after initial CST training, and one study compared two types of CST. The types of CST courses evaluated in these trials were diverse. Study participants included oncologists (six studies), residents (one study) other doctors (one study), nurses (six studies) and a mixed team of HCPs (one study). Overall, 1147 HCPs participated (536 doctors, 522 nurses and 80 mixed HCPs).

Ten studies contributed data to the meta-analyses. HCPs in the CST group were statistically significantly more likely to use open questions in the post-intervention interviews than the control group (five studies, 679 participant interviews; P = 0.04, I² = 65%) and more likely to show empathy towards patients (six studies, 727 participant interviews; P = 0.004, I² = 0%); we considered this evidence to be of moderate and high quality, respectively. Doctors and nurses did not perform statistically significantly differently for any HCP outcomes.There were no statistically significant differences in the other HCP communication skills except for the subgroup of participant interviews with simulated patients, where the intervention group was significantly less likely to present 'facts only' compared with the control group (four studies, 344 participant interviews; P = 0.01, I² = 70%).

There were no significant differences between the groups with regard to outcomes assessing HCP 'burnout', patient satisfaction or patient perception of the HCPs communication skills. Patients in the control group experienced a greater reduction in mean anxiety scores in a meta-analyses of two studies (169 participant interviews; P = 0.02; I² = 8%); we considered this evidence to be of a very low quality.