Improving Quality of Care by Paying Attention to the Need for Hope

Almost nothing is worse in medicine than a cold-hearted delivery of bad news that sucks all the hope out of a patient’s lungs. And almost nothing is better than an honest dialogue between doctor and patient that explores the hopes and fears of a patient faced with a very serious condition, in a way that allows for hope in some form to continue to exist. Because we know that when all hope ends, life does too.

Dr. Chris Feudtner, a bioethicist at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, has a sensitive essay on this topic in the New England Journal of Medicine. He titled it “The Breadth of Hopes.”

His idea is that all of us have a range of hopes that are necessary to carry on with daily life; some are fanciful and others are very concrete and specific.

Doctors need to nurture hope while helping patients redefine what it is they hope for. Even hoping for a miracle in the face of an incurable disease is not necessarily something that doctors should scoff at. As he writes:

Judging such a hope as either realistic or false misses the point; rather, we should judge ourselves as clinicians by the degree to which we can help nurture our patients’ collection of diverse hopes.

This is not to say doctors should encourage unrealistic Pollyanna thinking by patients.

Dr. Feudtner hopes to develop better tools to help patients and families in the emotional end of coping with disease. He concludes: “as clinicians, we need to more carefully work through what separates the appropriate management of hopes from their inappropriate manipulation, because whether we want the responsibility or not, we constantly interact with our patients’ hopes.”

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