Intended for healthcare professionals


How can doctors meet relatives’ information demands?

BMJ 2018; 363 doi: (Published 29 October 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;363:k4514
  1. Jacqui Thornton, freelance journalist
  1. London, UK
  1. jacqui{at}

Hospitals need to strike a balance between the need for staff to speak to carers and the time this takes. Jacqui Thornton explores some initiatives that are providing solutions

During the junior doctors’ strike, many consultant bodies were staffing wards to a higher level than usual. As a result, geriatrician Eileen Burns was on her ward in Leeds during visiting times and thought that it would be a good opportunity to talk to some patients’ relatives.

She spoke to a patient’s son at some length, and then another son turned up and wanted to have that conversation all over again. She did, of course, speak to him but, she says, “I thought, ‘For goodness’ sake—let’s be a bit reasonable here.’”

Burns is a firm advocate of proactive engagement with families—but this example highlights the thorny question of how time poor doctors, whose duty is to the patient, should deal with relatives who want information. What is the correct balance between the need and desire for information and the time it takes to provide it?

Complaints and investigations

There are varying views on the size of the problem and few data on relatives’ concerns about a lack of information. The latest NHS statistics found that around 15% (28 353) of complaints in 2017-18 were specifically about communication and a further 10% (19 026) were about staff attitudes, values, and behaviour.1

The GMC received 492 complaints about doctors in 2017 that fell into the category “Communicating effectively.” Around a fifth (98) of these were assigned to the subtype “Failure to share information with family or friends.” Of these, 28 were deemed serious enough to be investigated.

There appear to be three categories of relatives: carers, typically of older patients, who are very involved and generally have good relationships with doctors; family members who work office hours …

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