How could they Doctors found to be telling patients they have cancer over the phone
A patient may not have friends and family there with them if you give a diagnosis by phone, says cancer charity spokesman

Doctors have been warned about telling patients the distressing news they have cancer over the phone.

It follows a complaint to Burton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, in Staffordshire, after a patient received such a call.

Bosses put out a general notice to all staff that it was an ‘inappropriate’ method of passing on a diagnosis to a patient.

Queen's Hospital, part of the Burton Hospitals Foundation NHS Trust. Staff have been reminded that telling a patient they have cancer on the phone is 'inappropriate'

Queen's Hospital, part of the Burton Hospitals Foundation NHS Trust. Staff have been reminded that telling a patient they have cancer on the phone is 'inappropriate'

Speaking at a meeting of the trust’s board of directors, chairman Jim Morrison expressed his shock at the need to make such a warning to employees.

Martin Ledwick, Cancer Research UK's head information nurse, said: 'It is always difficult to hear the news that you have cancer and it's important that the news is given as sensitively as possible.

'For many people getting a diagnosis over the phone unexpectedly will be quite shocking, and you cannot guarantee that they will have friends and family around them to help support them.

'In most cases it will be much more appropriate to give patients this news face to face, so that support is available, a specialist nurse is on hand and they have plenty of opportunities to ask questions.

'There may be some exceptions to this in situations where a doctor has arranged in advance with a patient to phone them with biopsy or other test results.'

Mr Ledwick added: 'On our phone service we sometimes hear from patients who are contacted by phone to arrange further tests while they are still waiting for a diagnosis.

'If these tests are clearly to help stage the cancer, then it is sometimes obvious that they have cancer, but no one has formally told them yet. This is a particularly distressing situation to be in.'

Helen Ashley, chief executive at Burton Hospitals, said: 'That was a very special case. It was done with best intent.'

She said the staff member in question had been spoken to about the slip up and was sorry for their mistake.

The ‘generic reminder’ was issued to staff to ensure a similar mishap did not happen again.

The incident was the subject of one of 82 complaints made to the trust between October and December 2011.

The phone call incident was the subject of one of 82 complaints made to the trust between October and December 2011

The phone call incident was the subject of one of 82 complaints made to the trust between October and December 2011 (posed)

Although this figure was an increase on the same period in 2010, in which it received 76 complaints, Ms Ashley said the increase was not as bad as it could have been.

'The number of complaints that we had in the last quarter is a reduction in what we’ve seen in previous periods,' she said.

'During the last two quarters at least we have seen an increase in the number of services being provided.

'Therefore in real terms there is a reduction in the number of complaints.'

Ms Ashley gave the Midlands Treatment Centre as an example of one of the new services the trust had acquired in the last year.

Thirty-one per cent of complaints made were about medical care and treatment, 19.5 per cent were about communication and 9.5 per cent were about the attitude of staff.

After that, nursing care and treatment received 11 per cent of complaints, delayed or cancelled appointments made up five per cent and medication four per cent.

'When we get it right we get it right,' Ms Ashley said.

'Our challenge is to consistently get it right.'

For more information about cancer and to speak to Cancer
Research UK's cancer information nurses call freephone 0808 800 4040, or visit www.cancerhelp.org.uk