How doctors’ communication impacts cancer patients’ mental health


Being diagnosed with cancer is a life-changing event for a patient. Communicating this news, therefore, can have a significant impact on a patient’s emotional well-being. Not only is effective communication essential in providing patients with accurate information, but also it does help in maintaining the trust and preserving their hope. The adverse effects of ineffective communication of bad news will linger and cannot be easily reversed after news delivery.

The relationship between communication, trust, and hope

Research suggests that how doctors communicate the diagnosis can profoundly affect patients’ overall physical and mental health. It is noteworthy that cultural differences between Western and Asian countries can impact effective cancer diagnosis communication strategies. Asian countries, such as Japan and China, have unique cancer disclosure practices that must be considered. Doctors in China face communication difficulties due to stressful delivery processes, time constraints, and a lack of training and standard strategies for bad news communication. Patients prefer doctors to convey hope when delivering bad news, and high trust in doctors can improve patient outcomes. However, China has been experiencing a trust crisis due to a lack of doctor-patient communication skills and patient-centred behaviours. The study aims to examine the relationships among cancer disclosure communication, patients’ levels of trust in their doctors, and patients’ levels of hope.

Importance of honest communication

When delivering a cancer diagnosis, doctors must be honest and clear about the diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment options. While this can be a difficult conversation, providing patients with accurate information is essential. Patients who receive honest communication are more likely to feel informed and empowered to make decisions about their care. In a study aimed to investigate the trust levels of cancer patients in their primary care doctors in China, the research found that effective communication skills, including emotional support and personalized disclosure, were the strong predictors of patients’ trust in their doctors. Patients preferred communication strategies were also linked to higher satisfaction and trust levels. It was also observed that patients’ trust in their doctors is deterred if they are not involved in decision-making or do not discuss the treatment plans.

Delving with Empathy and Sensitivity

Effective communication of a cancer diagnosis requires empathy and sensitivity to the patient’s emotional state. Doctors must show compassion and understanding to patients experiencing fear, anxiety, or grief. Doctors can help patients feel heard, understood, and supported by demonstrating empathy and sensitivity.

Fostering Hope

Hope is essential for cancer patients, and doctors can help preserve hope by providing information about treatment options and potential outcomes. Effective communication can help patients maintain their hope and feel more positive about their future, even in the face of a cancer diagnosis. Patients who receive attention, support, and care from family members and healthcare providers have higher hope. Physicians should convey hope when communicating bad news. Treatment options and personalized disclosure also influence patients’ hope. In China, family members sometimes disclose a bad cancer diagnosis to patients, and it is unclear whether this affects patients’ levels of hope. The research question asks whether the key disclosure person affects patients’ hope. The hypotheses propose that higher levels of support from doctors and personalized disclosure predict higher levels of hope.

Building Trust

Trust is critical in the doctor-patient relationship, particularly in the context of cancer diagnosis and treatment. Patients need to trust their doctors to provide accurate information and the best possible care. Building and maintaining trust requires effective communication, honesty, and empathy.

Dealing with Challenges

Effective communication in cancer diagnosis can be challenging, particularly when discussing sensitive or complex topics. Doctors must be aware of communication barriers such as language barriers, cultural differences, and health literacy. By providing clear and concise information, using plain language, and addressing patients’ questions and concerns, doctors can overcome these barriers and ensure effective communication. The Institutional Review Board of Harbin Medical University Cancer Hospital, China, approved a study highlighting the need for professional training programs to improve doctors’ communication skills with cancer patients. The study emphasized the importance of involving family members in finding ways to personalize the disclosure process and giving patients a say in what they want to know. To build trust, doctors should discuss multiple treatment options and the benefits and side effects of each.


Prioritizing honesty, empathy, and sensitivity is crucial for effective communication of a cancer diagnosis, as it directly affects patients’ emotional wellbeing and outcomes. Through effective communication, doctors can provide patients with the necessary information, support, and hope to navigate their cancer journey. Effective communication builds trust between doctors and patients and enables personalized disclosure of information and discussion of multiple treatment plans, ultimately leading to better outcomes and a more positive experience for patients. Both perceived emotional support and trust play significant roles in helping patients process and cope with their diagnosis.


  1. Cao W, Qi X, Yao T, Han X, Feng X. How doctors communicate the initial diagnosis of cancer matters: cancer disclosure and its relationship with Patients’ hope and trust. Psycho‐oncology. 2017 May;26(5):640-8.
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