A Qualitative Study of Serious Illness Conversations in Patients with Advanced Cancer

Olaf P. Geerse, Daniela J. Lamas, Justin J. Sanders, Joanna Paladino, Jane Kavanagh, Natalie J. Henrich, Annette J. Berendsen, Thijo J.N. Hiltermann, Erik K. Fromme, Rachelle E. Bernacki, Susan D. Block

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Background: Conversations with seriously ill patients about their values and goals have been associated with reduced distress, a better quality of life, and goal-concordant care near the end of life. Yet, little is known about how such conversations are conducted. Objective: To characterize the content of serious illness conversations and identify opportunities for improvement. Design: Qualitative analysis of audio-recorded, serious illness conversations using an evidence-based guide and obtained through a cluster randomized controlled trial in an outpatient oncology setting. Setting/Measurements: Clinicians assigned to the intervention arm received training to use the "Serious Illness Conversation Guide" to have a serious illness conversation about values and goals with advanced cancer patients. Conversations were de-identified, transcribed verbatim, and independently coded by two researchers. Key themes were analyzed. Results: A total of 25 conversations conducted by 16 clinicians were evaluated. The median conversation duration was 14 minutes (range 4-37), with clinicians speaking half of the time. Thematic analyses demonstrated five key themes: (1) supportive dialogue between patients and clinicians; (2) patients' openness to discuss emotionally challenging topics; (3) patients' willingness to articulate preferences regarding life-sustaining treatments; (4) clinicians' difficulty in responding to emotional or ambiguous patient statements; and (5) challenges in discussing prognosis. Conclusions: Data from this exploratory study suggest that seriously ill patients are open to discussing values and goals with their clinician. Yet, clinicians may struggle when disclosing a time-based prognosis and in responding to patients' emotions. Such skills should be a focus for additional training for clinicians caring for seriously ill patients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)773-781
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of palliative medicine
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • advance care planning
  • neoplasms
  • palliative care
  • qualitative research

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Nursing(all)
  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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