How to Handle Bad News From Your Doctor

Your life won’t be the same after a doctor’s diagnosis. These tips for coping with bad news from your doctor are from writer, speaker, and college professor Donnell King.

“My wife and I were blessed with a special needs daughter who required a lot of care – she was hospitalized 22 times in her first four years of life,” says Donn.

He adds that his mother used to avoid going to the doctor if she felt something out of the ordinary. She once told him she would rather live with not knowing than to find out she had something bad like cancer. “I loved my mom,” says Donn. “She’s been gone for a year and a half now, and I miss her. But she was dead wrong on this one. Avoiding bad news is understandable. It’s human. But it’s not smart.”

The sooner you hear about bad news, he says, the sooner you can do something about it. Plus, chances are that it’s not “absolutely inconceivably devastating news” — it’s more likely to be “not good news” that you can cope with.

In this article, Donn describes how to handle a health diagnosis that has left you surprised, shocked, or shattered.

4 Ways to Cope With Bad News From Your Doctor

Bad news from any source is never easy, but there are some things you can do to make it easier.

Encourage the doctor to speak freely

Practice Courageous Communication. The root for “courage” is a Latin word that means “heart.” Effective communication comes from the heart. As Susan Jeffers said in Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway, courage isn’t a lack of fear, but rather doing what needs doing despite fear.

When I was a child, doctors routinely hid bad news from patients out of a sense of kindness. Today, doctors have gone to the other extreme and tend to deliver “just the facts” about the diagnosis, fearing giving false hope.

It is easier to get a doctor to speak freely when you have an established relationship. In any case, you will get better information from the doctor when you make it clear you want to know.

Forget the polite/pushy false dichotomy

When she did go to the doctor, Mom used to just accept whatever she was told without questioning. She believed her only choice was between being polite and being pushy, and she didn’t want to be pushy.

Conflict experts recognize that both passive (polite) and aggressive (pushy) behavior seek to control the other person. A better path is assertive behavior, which seeks not to control the other person but simply to communicate clearly.

In this case, Courageous Communication just means “ask questions.” Yes, the doctor’s time is valuable, but so are you. It will be harder to get answers later. Ask now.

Ask for further resources

Some doctors’ offices have in-house social workers, and those without have connections they can recommend. Your insurance company or Employee Assistance Program may have such resources as well. Don’t hesitate to ask.

Support groups exist for the more common diseases and conditions, and there are also more general support groups for people who have had a serious diagnosis. You will have an easier time finding them if you ask for those connections from your doctor.

Don’t forget the business people

When you’ve had bad news from the doctor, it’s easy to sweep the financial concerns to the back of your mind. But financial considerations loom up to cause problems at the worst possible time when you’re already dealing with a serious medical challenge or diagnosis. And doctors’ offices can be some of the worst at customer service.

For instance, one of my children regularly visited a neurologist. After a year or so we started getting notices from a collection agency. The doctor’s business person told me there had been a $7 charge uncovered by insurance or the $20 co-pay on each visit. She said $7 wasn’t enough to stick a stamp on a bill, and the front desk wasn’t told to alert me about old bills. But when the unpaid balance built up enough, they didn’t “have time to make phone calls,” so they turned it over for collection.

Be relentless about making proactive phone calls. Make sure they file insurance correctly, and ask about unpaid balances. The doctors don’t deal with the business end, and the business folks don’t have a connection to the patients.

how to cope with bad news from your doctor
Donn King – Speaker, Author, College Professor

How have you handled bad news from a doctor? Tips and questions are welcomed below.

You may also be interested in reading How to Help Your Partner Cope With Your Cancer Diagnosis.

Donn King works with individuals and groups who want to forge top-notch communication skills to increase their influence and impact.

You can email him at, follow him at, or visit his website at where he blogs about Courageous Communication and other communication skills.


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