Recognition of psychological distress in patients with cancer, some of which can be ameliorated with appropriate intervention, is a crucial aspect of patient care. Previous studies, with the exception of one, indicate that oncologists often fail to detect general distress and do not identify those patients with significant psychological disorder. As approximately 25-30% of patients experience anxiety and/or depression severe enough to merit psychological intervention, this is a serious problem. This study assessed the ability of five oncologists to recognise distress in newly referred out-patients who were receiving bad news. Self-report measures of the oncologists' satisfaction with their performance during the bad news interviews were also collected. Each patient had two clinical interviews in which information concerning diagnosis and treatment were given. Prior to each interview patients reported their own levels of distress by completing two self-report questionnaires. These were correlated with the ratings of distress and satisfaction made by each clinician on a visual analogue scale after each interview. Only one oncologist's ratings consistently correlated with patients' self-reported scores. The clinicians tended to under-rate the distress in their patients and were mostly satisfied with their performances during each interview. The ability to detect distress varied between each clinician and confirmed the conclusions of past studies that oncologists would benefit from up-grading their psychological assessment skills.