Bad News and Telephone Calls
A friend recently sent me this link to an article in the LA Times about receiving bad cancer news over the telephone: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/09/health/he-badnews9
The author, Deborah Lewis, describes receiving a call from her surgeon on her cell phone. She was driving, pulled over to the side of the road, and was told that she had cancer. Far from objecting to this communication, she was grateful to hear the news as quickly as possible, in private, and to have a chance to begin to absorb the information and think about questions before meeting with her surgeon the following day. I tend to agree with her reaction, but I know that the standard instruction to young doctors is not to give bad news over the phone, but to wait until an appointment to share the pathology or scan report.
I have often discussed this with my patients and with doctors with whom I work. Opinions vary, but there seems to one rule that all patients would like to see enforced. It is: Make a plan with your doctor about how you will hear the news. What most of us don't want are surprises about this. Receiving a call from a doctor's office saying that: "The doctor wants you to come in to discuss your biopsy results" is as good as an announcement that the news is bad. Wondering whether your doctor plans to call with results prior to an appointment can be terrible, too. You may be left to think: "She's not calling because the news is bad" or "She's not calling because the news is good, and there is nothing to worry about. No news is good news."
There is not a right or wrong answer here. The only good answer is whatever suits you best and helps you minimize your anxiety. Before you have the biopsy or the scan or the MRI, talk with your doctor and express your preference. If you want a phone call, tell her whether it is okay to leave a message on your voice mail. Tell her whether it is okay to call you at work or only at home. And, if you would prefer to wait until you are in her office, tell her that--and then try hard to put it aside until the designated day.