Good News About Bad News

A non-profit teaches doctors the art of breaking bad news with compassion.

Illustration by James O'Brien

“Everybody seems to have a story about a doctor who told them tragic news but failed to do it the right way,” says Dr. Anthony Orsini, founder of the nonprofit Breaking Bad News Foundation.

Telling families awful, hard-to-fathom medical realities “is often done too abruptly, because the doctor just wants to get it over with,” says Orsini, a neonatologist who practiced at the Goryeb Children’s Hospital at Morristown Medical Center and lived in North Caldwell before moving to Orlando, Florida, last year.

When Orsini started seeing patients in 1997, he was determined not to be a cold-hearted clinician. “The idea of breaking [tragic] news scared me,” he says. “I’d watch these difficult interactions every chance I got, and what I saw was that some doctors were horrible at it, and some did it really well.” After years of observation, “I thought, Let’s find out why this physician is good at it and teach it, so the next generation of physicians are all good at it.”

After a dozen years of research, Orsini launched Breaking Bad News in 2010 to teach health care workers how best to communicate with patients. The model is now used in more than a dozen medical training programs. The foundation brings professional actors into hospitals to role-play on video with doctors tasked with delivering terrible truths.

“It’s improvisational, and we review the tapes with the physicians right after the scenes are shot,” Orsini says. “This way they can actually see the analysis. It’s one thing to tell someone their hand gestures were off and another to actually see it for themselves.”
The model has branched from Morristown to hospitals in Orlando and Norfolk, Virginia, with the goal of reaching doctors and medical centers throughout the country. “We’ve already trained well over 250 physicians,” Orsini says. “The impact on the families that benefit is huge. It’s been more rewarding than I ever imagined.”

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