Information seeking during "bad news" oncology interactions: Question asking by patients and their companions

Soc Sci Med. 2006 Dec;63(11):2974-85. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2006.07.012. Epub 2006 Sep 7.


Previous research has investigated patient question asking in clinical settings as a strategy of information seeking and as an indicator of the level of active patient participation in the interaction. This study investigates questions asked by patients and their companions during stressful encounters in the oncology setting in the USA. We transcribed all questions patients and companions asked the oncologist during 28 outpatient interactions in which "bad news" was discussed (n = 705) and analyzed them for frequency and topic. Additionally, we analyzed the extent to which personal and demographic characteristics and independently obtained ratings of the oncologist-patient/companion relationships were related to question asking. Findings demonstrated that at least one companion was present in 24 (86%) of the 28 interactions and companions asked significantly more questions than patients. The most frequently occurring topics for both patients and companions were treatment, diagnostic testing, diagnosis, and prognosis. In general, personal and demographic characteristics were unrelated to question asking, but older patients asked fewer questions, while more educated patients asked more questions. With regard to ratings of the quality of the dyadic relationships, results showed that "trust" between the physician and companions was positively correlated and "conversational dominance by physician" was negatively correlated with the frequency of companion questions. Additionally, positive ratings of the relationship between physicians and companions were correlated with fewer patient questions. This study demonstrates that companions are active participants in stressful oncology interactions. Future research and physician training in communication would benefit from expanding the focus beyond the patient-physician dyad to the roles and influence of multiple participants in medical interactions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Communication*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Truth Disclosure*
  • United States
  • Video Recording