A study by Canadian palliative experts shows that asking a terminally ill patient one simple question may help health professionals develop more empathy toward their patients.
Termed the “patient dignity question” (PDQ), the question is, “What do I need to know about you as a person to give you the best care possible?”
The answers provided by patients over the two years of the study are as varied and unique as the patients themselves.
One patient said she was afraid of dying alone and wanted to have a staff member by her side at the time of death, while another said she had difficulty trusting doctors and was worried they would assume that she couldn’t make her own decisions.
Another patient wanted her food served on the right side of the tray due to a visual field defect. A family member who answered the question for a terminally ill relative said the patient had a lot of pride in the fact that he had provided support for his community, and was bothered that he couldn’t provide that support anymore.
Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, the director of the Manitoba Palliative Care Research Unit and CancerCare Manitoba, led the study. He said there is little research that defines practical ways for health-care providers to offer more empathic care to their terminally ill cancer patients.
In addition, busy doctors often rush to get to the next patient and may not take the time to learn anything personal about each patient.
However, the study found that after health care professionals read the patients’ responses, the vast majority said they were emotionally affected and that the experience helped them develop more empathy.
“Preliminary results show that on the basis of a very brief, cost-effective intervention, we are able to increase empathy in the majority of health care providers,” Dr. Chochinov said in a statement.
“This simple intervention provides a deeper knowledge of the person we are caring for and helps us understand what matters most at what is likely a very difficult time,” added Dr. Robin McClure, an attending physician for the Palliative Care Program of Winnipeg Regional Health Authority where the study took place.
The study was funded by the Canadian Cancer Society. The researchers are currently piloting the use of the PDQ with cancer patients at different stages of the disease.