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In the cancer and palliative care context particularly, therapeutic communication is critical to identify patients’ goals of care.  Communication needs of patients include the need for information, assistance in the relief of pain and symptoms, an opportunity to disclose feelings, ability to maintain a sense of control, and a need for knowing that their life had meaning and purpose.  Communication needs of family members include the need for information; permission to speak, and to be listened to as they face the decline and death of their loved one.  

When patients and their families continue to face serious illness, they become faced with making difficult decisions and a transition to palliative care. Effective therapeutic communication skills assist individuals in making informed decisions.

Therapeutic communication skills are not inherent; these skills must be learned and included in formal curriculum.  Recent literature has emphasized the role of medicine in “breaking bad news” and has identified that:

  • patients’ psychological distress impedes their understanding, health behaviours and possibly survival;
  • good communication can reduce patients’ distress and lead to better adjustment and satisfaction;
  • developing communication skills is in line with good clinical practice;
  • effective communication can reduce clinicians’ stress/burnout and may lead to fewer complaints and litigation;
  • clinicians express a need for training; and
  • communication skills don’t necessarily get better with time.

Communication in relations to COVID-19

Department of Health: COVID-19 infection control training

30 minute online training for health care workers in all settings

Click here to access the training

COVID-19 Communication Skills

A VitalTalk open source primer for talking about COVID-19

Click here to be directed to the VitalTalk website

Clinical practice guideline

The Medical Journal of Australia

Clinical practice guidelines for communicating prognosis and end-of-life issues with adults in the advanced stages of a life-limiting illness, and their caregivers.

Click here to view the Medical Journal of Australian Clinical Practice Guidelines on Communication

Family meetings in palliative care

This clinical guideline offers a framework for preparing, conducting and evaluating family meetings

Click here to view the family meeting guideline

Journal Articles and Literature Reviews

Active listening More than just paying attention

This article discusses active listening, a difficult discipline for anyone to practice, and examines why this is particularly so for doctors. It draws together themes from key literature in the field of communication skills, and examines how these theories apply in general practice

Click here to view the article

Responding to desire to die statements from patients with advanced disease: recommendations for health professionals

The purpose of this article is to provide health professionals from nursing, medical and allied health disciplines, with recommendations on how to respond when confronted with a DTDS.
Click here to view the article

Review Collection: Communication

Click here to view the literature review


Communication at end of life

By: Brian Le

Click here to listen


Being Mortal Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End
By: Atul Gawande

With the End in Mind
By: Kathryn Mannix

When Breath Becomes Air, What makes life worth living in the face of death
By: Paul Kalanithi

Better Death Conversations about the art of living and dying well
By: Ranjana Srivastava

Denial of Death
By: Ernest Becker