Objectives: Communication between health care providers and patients with cancer and other chronic diseases typically references probabilities that certain future events will or will not occur. Beyond the context of diagnostic encounters and the transmission of “bad news,” such “prognostic” communications take place in various forms throughout the illness trajectory. It is well known that such information transmitted badly can have devastating psychosocial consequences for patients and their families and, conversely, that difficult information exchanged with sensitivity can lend tremendous support. This study aimed to extend our understanding of how such communications are received and interpreted by patients, so that we might optimally apply what we know about general principles of effective communication within the particularly challenging context of predicting futures.
Methods: We conducted a combined secondary analysis of two prior qualitative studies into patient perceptions of helpful and unhelpful health care communication with 200 cancer patients and 30 persons with chronic illness. These data sets offered a rich resource for comparing perceptions across a range of contextual variables, and secondary analysis focused on future-oriented interactions, including both prognostication and prediction.
Results: The accounts of patients with cancer and chronic illness reveal various ways in which health care communications involving future projections interact with their human experience of hope, powerfully shaping their capacity to make sense of and live with serious illness. They include a synthesis of what patients recommend health care professionals know and understand about this challenging dynamic.
Significance of results: The findings of this study offer a distinct angle of vision onto the various communications that involve future predictions, illuminating a patient perspective with the potential to inform health care communication approaches that are both informative and therapeutic. As such, the study supports a dynamic understanding of the tenuous balance between hope and honesty in the clinical encounter.