More than 60% of women now learn about their breast cancer diagnosis over the phone

A growing number of women are learning about their breast cancer diagnosis over the phone, according to a new study published in Supportive Care for Cancer. How can healthcare providers prepare for delivering such big news in such an impersonal way?

The authors surveyed more than 2,800 breast cancer patients who were diagnosed between 1967 and 2017, asking them how they first learned about their diagnosis. Overall, prior to 2007, approximately 25 percent of patients learned about their diagnosis over the phone. After 2007, however, that proportion increased to more than 50 percent. Since 2015? It’s more than 60 percent.

“When we analyzed the data, I was completely surprised to find such a clear trend,” lead author Jane McElroy, PhD, professor of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia, said in a prepared statement. “Historically, physicians have decided to use their best judgment when delivering a diagnosis, whether it's in person or over the phone. Nowadays, some patients clearly want to hear this information over the phone.”

These findings have led to an updated curriculum at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, according to Natalie Long, MD, assistant professor of clinical family and community medicine at the school.

“We are now including additional training for first-year medical students to talk about situations and techniques for breaking bad news over the phone,” Long said in the same statement. “The digital age has changed our perception of how we want to get news. I think younger patients just want to know news faster.”

When breaking such news, students now learn, it’s important to make sure the patient “is in a good place to talk” and to show empathy for their situation.

“This patient-centered approach to notification shows we are leading the next generation of physicians,” McElroy said “When we looked at how other hospitals are confronting this dilemma, we realized we're on the forefront of this discussion by training our medical students before they have to deliver difficult diagnoses as physicians.”