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JCO Exclusive: Can Oncology Communication Skills Be Learned? Yes, Says One Study

Jan 26, 2015

By Shira Klapper, Senior Writer/Editor

Four interdisciplinary radiology teams in Belgium took part in a 38-hour training program designed to strengthen skills in patient communication. The results? After participating in the program, the physicians, nurses, physicists, and administrative assistants from the trained teams showed improvements in patient-assessment skills, supportive skills, and in the amount of information shared with patients during a radiology planning session among patients with breast cancer. That’s according to a new Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) study, “Transfer of Communication Skills to the Workplace: Impact of a 38-Hour Communications Skills Training Program Designed for Radiotherapy Teams,” published online, ahead of print, January 26, 2015.

The study also found evidence that patients’ own communication skills were stronger when interacting with team members who had received training. During the planning sessions, these patients asked more open questions and expressed more emotional words. These patients also showed a higher level of satisfaction in their communication with nurses, according to a patient questionnaire administered on the last day of treatment.

Commenting on the finding about patient satisfaction, study first author, Isabelle Merckaert, PhD, said, “What we observed is that patients who met with the team members who had gone through training were more easily able to talk about what was happening to them.”

Role-playing to learn communication skills

The study randomly assigned 65 team members to the training program and 31 team members to a wait-list for the program (participants were divided in a way that kept teams intact). The four-month program consisted of 16 hours of training on patient-oriented communications skills. Training sessions focused on topics such as patient distress during radiotherapy and allowed participants to practice communication skills in oncology care.

The 16-hour training was carried out among members of the same discipline—for example, nurses came together to carry out role-playing and to practice communication skills that might be called upon in their specific discipline.

The training also consisted of 22 hours of interdisciplinary, team-oriented communication skills modules, in which at least one member of each discipline was present. These modules included role-playing exercises, designed to improve members’ ability to address situations that may arise during radiotherapy sessions and to improve communication among both colleagues and patients.

Analysis of audio-recorded sessions

To assess whether the training program had an impact on team members’ communication skills, 237 radiology planning sessions were audiotaped. The researchers then used qualitative analysis software to analyze the recorded conversations and identify words and phrases in three categories: assessment, support, and information.

The analysis showed that teams who participated in the training expressed phrases from these categories at a significantly higher rate than those who did not receive training.

Allaying anxieties through communication

Dr. Merckaert commented on the psychological and clinical importance of good communications skills during the first radiotherapy planning session. “During the first session, people are facing the environment of radiotherapy for the first time, which may trigger anxiety,” she said. “Often people have many questions and fears about the radiotherapy machine and treatment in general. Physicians came to us saying that they need better communication skills at this time because they know that if the patient is anxious, there’s a strong chance it will continue throughout the therapy. It might even have clinical impact in that anxious patients might shift their places in the machine and need to be re-positioned again.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Merckaert said the study supports the idea that communication skills can be strengthened over time, but further study is necessary. “Since this is the first study to assess the impact of training programs on multidisciplinary radiotherapy teams, I think the study should be replicated to see if we can confirm what we saw.”

Isabelle Merckaert, PhD, is on the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, in Belgium.



Click here to read the abstract.


Click here to read the PDF.

Merckaert I, Delevallez F, Gibon AS et al. Transfer of communication skills to the workplace: impact of a 38-hour communications skills training program designed for radiotherapy teams. J Clin Oncol. Epub 2015 Jan 26.

The Exclusive Coverage series on ASCO.org highlights selected research from JCO and JOP with additional perspective provided by the lead or corresponding author.

@ 2014 American Society of Clinical Oncology

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