Preparing for your first end-of-life conversation as a resident

| March 23, 2022

Engaging in end-of-life (EOL) conversations with patients requires careful, strategic communication on the part of the physician. For physicians and residents who lack experience covering the complex subject of death with their patients, EOL conversations can be difficult, according to a study published by the Annals of Palliative Medicine.


Partial picture of man on couch talking with doctor

Male sexual dysfunction can be a tricky medical problem for doctors to navigate with their patients.

Good physician communication, however, is central to patient satisfaction during palliative care. Residents can better prepare for EOL conversations by determining the logistics of the interaction beforehand, and tailoring their presentation to the patient’s preferred communication style. 

If you’ve yet to have your first EOL conversation in residency—or your first few—you might feel ill-equipped to start one. Even physicians who have established practices struggle to engage in such weighty interactions. Fortunately, there’s a list of questions you can answer prior to the discussion that may pave the way to meaningful results.

An AMA Journal of Ethics article explains the significance of addressing the logistical elements of an EOL conversation before starting one.

These include the following:

Who? Clarify with your patient who exactly they’d like to have present for the conversation. Family members, while supportive, may disagree on treatment options or get swept up in intense emotions. It’s your responsibility as a physician to call everyone’s focus back to the patient. Patience will serve you well in EOL discussions, especially those that include family.

What? Determine what you’d like to accomplish with the conversation. Perhaps your goal is to provide updates on your patient’s prognosis, or deliver important news. On the other hand, maybe now’s the time to ask your patient what their goals of care are, or to relay that information to the family and other caregivers. You decide how much to share about the illness and its prognosis based on what your patient is ready to receive.

Where? Most often, EOL conversations take place at a patient’s bedside. This is largely due to their condition and lack of other space.

When? Schedule EOL discussions when you have time to actively listen and be present for your patient. Be sure to clarify any misunderstandings, offer suggestions, and propose next steps. Try to steer clear of integrating EOL conversations into your routine rounds and office visits, as you might be too busy racing the clock to give your full attention.  

How? Having a loose conversational structure may be helpful. Start by naming any goals you may have for the interaction while maintaining the flexibility your patient may require. Ask an open-ended question. Remember that your patient’s needs and ability to accept information are foremost. Listen first. This is likely to be a heavy moment for your patient, fraught with emotional upheaval that prevents them from taking in what you have to say. 

General practitioners who have had a lot of experience in palliative care conversations have developed a feel for them that can help guide residents in finding their own approach. These strategies, described in a study published by Family Practice, emphasize preparation, alongside three additional tactics to aid physicians in EOL interactions.

Gauge readiness and choose an entry point

According to GPs participating in the study, successful EOL conversations are rooted in a strong patient-doctor relationship. Having already established good rapport and trust with a patient eases the EOL conversation, over and above preparing for it

It’s important to gauge a patient’s readiness to enter into the EOL conversation. To do so accurately, you should consider the patient’s personality and psychological state.

Once you feel you’ve got a good handle on your patient’s current state, focus on finding an appropriate conversational entry point. 

There are different ways to do this, as the doctors told Family Practice. You can respond to patients’ inquiries about their goals of care, or implement EOL conversations routinely with patients who could benefit from them. For some patients, the physician might directly address their prognosis, whereas for others, it might be best to test the waters by asking indirect or hypothetical questions about plans for their future care.

Read your audience and involve the family

Two other tactics that GPs use to engage in fruitful EOL conversations are tailoring communication to the patient’s communication style and getting the family involved when it’s appropriate, as noted in Family Practice.

To better reach your patients, you may have to modify your communication style and approach the EOL discussion in increments, rather than all at once. Using a gentle approach for the patients for whom this is appropriate could mean saying something like “The chances of someone living with this for more than two years are very low.” For others, depending on the personalities of both physician and patient, and their relationship, a direct, honest approach may be the most fruitful.  

Finally, the patient may choose to have family members in the room during EOL conversations. Some doctors find the presence of family to be valuable for information-sharing purposes and determining the right course of treatment for patients nearing their final days.