7 bedside manner techniques that show empathy in oncology

59% of patients associate a physician’s bedside manner to the quality of care received from a health care facility, according to a physician survey1. These patients also revealed the importance of compassion, comfort, and patience in their interactions with their doctors. This is particularly important in cancer care because patients react differently to a cancer diagnosis.  

Apart from professional competence, certain strategies and skills are necessary to help oncologists provide positive patient experiences. Your ability to connect with your patients can create a positive patient relationship that may support positive health outcomes. Likewise, demonstrating a positive attitude and communicating professionally typically help patients handle sad news. Here are seven specific bedside manner practices to show your patients how much you care.  

1. Embrace collaborative communication

Collaborative communication is a two-way approach to communication that facilitates shared decision-making. Instead of providing information from a standardized cancer treatment protocol, the oncologist strives to provide essential details and seeks feedback from the patient. Also, the oncologist discusses the diagnosis and therapeutic options, keeping the following in mind: 

  • Level of risk acceptance 
  • Patient’s needs and expectations 
  • Outcome preferences 
  • Associated costs 

This approach allows patients’ active participation in the management process and maximizes treatment adherence, which supports better health outcomes. 

2. Anticipate and manage emotions  

43% of oncologists revealed that fear is the major emotion most patients express during cancer care, according to a 2022 Sermo study2.  

Your ability to anticipate a patient’s emotional response before discussing details of a cancer diagnosis typically helps you to manage their feelings. Some patients may express fear, anxiety, or feel depressed after you break the news. However, your communication style and choice of words may influence a patient’s psychological state. 

A hospital study3on the psychological state of patients who received a cancer diagnosis expressed varying degrees of anxiety and depression. The following factors were associated with patients with lower anxiety:    

  • Preparing the patient for a possible cancer diagnosis
  • Having the people wanted by the patient present to hear the diagnosis 
  • Providing the patient with details of the diagnosis as desired 
  • Providing written and clear information 
  • Answering the patient’s questions the same day 
  • Discussing the patient’s feelings and being reassuring 

Also, patients had lower levels of depression when the oncologists discussed: 

  • The severity of the condition  
  • Treatment options and involved the patient in the treatment decisions 

Keep in mind, both the information and how you present it may influence your patient’s emotional state. 

3. Actively communicate

Effective doctor-patient interaction goes beyond words. Besides demonstrating knowledge in your specialty, cancer patients generally feel better when you are empathetic and listen to them.  

Use your voice tone and body language to show compassion and how you genuinely care about the patient. Listen attentively to not only the words but also the emotions behind the words spoken. Ask open-ended questions to enable the patients to discuss how they feel and reassure them. 

One clinical study4 on intensive care patients revealed that five days of touch reduced emotional stress indicators. A study5 on the importance of touch in clinical consultations revealed that a doctor’s touch on the back of most patients comforted them. Hence, you can show how much you care and comfort your patients with a gentle touch on the back. 

Communicating with a calming tone and non-defensive body language also supports a positive patient experience.  

4. Manage patient’s beliefs 

Socio-cultural factors influence an individual’s belief system about health care. Some patients may have fear or negative beliefs and perceptions that may affect their decision to receive and complete treatment. It is essential to identify any perceived beliefs your patient may have and create opportunities for them to ask questions you can address for them to improve patient adherence to therapeutic plans. Also, explain in detail the treatment options and the benefits as well as the drawbacks. 

Aim to understand what and how the patient thinks about the condition and treatment options. Also, seek feedback and tell the patient to briefly summarize what you have told them to assure they understand the condition and treatment. 

5. Be respectful 

Irrespective of your best efforts, you may encounter patients who hold divergent views and disregard your expert recommendations. Also, a patient or their family members may disrespect you even when you have given your best. Therefore, stay calm, aim to understand their feelings, and respectfully address the underlying problem. 

6. Stay focused 

Face-to-face interaction is key to a meaningful interaction with your patient. Patients feel understood when you focus your attention on them. Make eye contact regularly during your conversations and avoid distractions from technological devices, including medical ones. 

7. Create time to check on patients 

The average oncologist spends hours consulting in the clinic and may find it difficult to follow up with patients regularly.  

To help optimize your time for checking on your patients, create a system or process that is easily repeatable. For instance, prepare and send a scheduled automated follow-up email for each patient a few days after consultation or use a personal assistant to follow up with your patients. 

Barriers to a good bedside manner 

Your communication skills play a crucial role in developing a good bedside manner. Here are common communication errors6 that may affect your bedside manners: 

  • Paucity of information: Instead, provide clear and profound information about the disease, treatment plan, prognosis, purpose of care, expectations, the patient’s involvement in the treatment process, and other relevant details. 
  • Unaddressed emotions: To resolve this, listen actively to the feelings behind your patient’s words and encourage them to discuss how they feel. 
  • Monologue type of conversation: To avoid monologue conversations, use dialogues to ask questions and get feedback to keep your patients active in a discussion. A 2022 Sermo physician survey revealed that 77% of doctors prefer a dialogue style of communication. 

A good bedside manner differentiates you 

A good bedside manner builds patients’ trust in you and optimizes your cancer patient care. Patients express different emotions, and if addressed, this could enhance their health outcome and treatment adherence. 

In addition to your specialized knowledge, showing empathy and compassion through how you communicate with your patients sets you apart from your peers. 

To learn more about developing bedside manners, you can learn from the conversations other oncologists have in the Sermo community or participate in virtual tumor boards. Join Sermo for free today to gain access to an online community of experienced physicians. 


  1. Patient Sentiment Report 2022
  2. 2022 Sermo study
  3. ScienceDirect
  4. ScienceDirect
  5. National Library of Medicine
  6. National Library of Medicine