'It's going to shorten your life': framing of oncologist-patient communication about prognosis

Psychooncology. 2008 Mar;17(3):219-25. doi: 10.1002/pon.1223.


In this qualitative study, we used grounded theory techniques to analyze transcripts of 29 first-time encounters between oncologists and patients referred to them with previously diagnosed, incurable cancer. We found that 23 (79%) of the transcripts included 166 examples of prognostic talk. The language used ranged from general to personal, with 25% of statements mentioning no patients (e.g., 'the tumor will usually come back'), 13% mentioning patients other than the current patient (e.g., 'some patients with tumor response will be around for 2-5 years'), 11% mentioning the current patient in the context of others (e.g., 'on average, people like you live a couple of years'), and 51% directly focusing on the patient (e.g., 'this thing's going to kill you eventually'). More statements pertained to treatment-related prognosis than to disease-related prognosis (67 versus 33%). While 31% of statements focused on negative outcomes (loss framing), the remainder either focused on positive outcomes (gain framing) or discussed a combination of positive and negative outcomes (mixed framing). When discussions focused on negative outcomes, general and indirect language was commonly used, perhaps to buffer the patient from news of the poor prognosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect
  • Attitude to Death
  • Communication*
  • Disease Progression
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Male
  • Medical Oncology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms* / therapy
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Prognosis
  • Verbal Behavior