Giving bad news: the family perspective

J Trauma. 2000 May;48(5):865-70; discussion 870-3. doi: 10.1097/00005373-200005000-00009.


Background: Death from trauma frequently comes without forewarning. Relating the news of death to the family is often the responsibility of trauma surgeons. The purpose of this study was to investigate the key characteristics and methods of delivering bad news from the perspective of surviving family members.

Methods: We designed and administered a survey tool to surviving family members of trauma patients dying in the emergency department or intensive care unit. The tool consisted of 14 elements that surviving family members graded in importance when receiving bad news (1, least; 6, most). Respondents also judged the attention given to these elements (good, fair, or poor) by the person giving the bad news of death.

Results: Fifty-four family members of 48 patients who died completed the survey (44 intensive care unit deaths, 4 emergency room deaths). Deceased patients ranged in age from 12 to 91 years (mean, 53 years). Death occurred within 2 days of injury in 69% of the patients and within 1 week in 83%. The most important features of delivering bad news were judged to be attitude of the news-giver (ranked most important by 72%), clarity of the message (70%), privacy (65%), and knowledge/ ability to answer questions (57%). The attire of the news-giver ranked as least important (3%). Sympathy, time for questions, and location of the conversation were ranked of intermediate importance. Touching was unwanted by 30% of the respondents, but encouraged or acceptable in 24%.

Conclusion: The attitude of the news-giver, combined with clarity of the message and the time, privacy, and knowledge to answer questions are the most important aspects of giving bad news. This information should be incorporated into resident training.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Attitude to Death
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Child
  • Critical Care / psychology
  • Death*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Empathy
  • Family / psychology*
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / education
  • Medical Staff, Hospital / psychology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Trauma / mortality*
  • Privacy
  • Professional-Family Relations*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Time Factors
  • Truth Disclosure*