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Oncology clinicians' defenses and adherence to communication skills training with simulated patients: an exploratory study.
Journal of Cancer Education
Publication types: Journal Article
The aim of this exploratory study was to assess the impact of clinicians' defense mechanisms-defined as self-protective psychological mechanisms triggered by the affective load of the encounter with the patient-on adherence to a communication skills training (CST). The population consisted of oncology clinicians (N = 31) who participated in a CST. An interview with simulated cancer patients was recorded prior and 6 months after CST. Defenses were measured before and after CST and correlated with a prototype of an ideally conducted interview based on the criteria of CST-teachers. Clinicians who used more adaptive defense mechanisms showed better adherence to communication skills after CST than clinicians with less adaptive defenses (F(1, 29) = 5.26, p = 0.03, d = 0.42). Improvement in communication skills after CST seems to depend on the initial levels of defenses of the clinician prior to CST. Implications for practice and training are discussed. Communication has been recognized as a central element of cancer care . Ineffective communication may contribute to patients' confusion, uncertainty, and increased difficulty in asking questions, expressing feelings, and understanding information [2, 3], and may also contribute to clinicians' lack of job satisfaction and emotional burnout . Therefore, communication skills trainings (CST) for oncology clinicians have been widely developed over the last decade. These trainings should increase the skills of clinicians to respond to the patient's needs, and enhance an adequate encounter with the patient with efficient exchange of information . While CSTs show a great diversity with regard to their pedagogic approaches [6, 7], the main elements of CST consist of (1) role play between participants, (2) analysis of videotaped interviews with simulated patients, and (3) interactive case discussion provided by participants. As recently stated in a consensus paper , CSTs need to be taught in small groups (up to 10-12 participants) and have a minimal duration of at least 3 days in order to be effective. Several systematic reviews evaluated the impact of CST on clinicians' communication skills [9-11]. Effectiveness of CST can be assessed by two main approaches: participant-based and patient-based outcomes. Measures can be self-reported, but, according to Gysels et al. , behavioral assessment of patient-physician interviews  is the most objective and reliable method for measuring change after training. Based on 22 studies on participants' outcomes, Merckaert et al.  reported an increase of communication skills and participants' satisfaction with training and changes in attitudes and beliefs. The evaluation of CST remains a challenging task and variables mediating skills improvement remain unidentified. We recently thus conducted a study evaluating the impact of CST on clinicians' defenses by comparing the evolution of defenses of clinicians participating in CST with defenses of a control group without training . Defenses are unconscious psychological processes which protect from anxiety or distress. Therefore, they contribute to the individual's adaptation to stress . Perry refers to the term "defensive functioning" to indicate the degree of adaptation linked to the use of a range of specific defenses by an individual, ranging from low defensive functioning when he or she tends to use generally less adaptive defenses (such as projection, denial, or acting out) to high defensive functioning when he or she tends to use generally more adaptive defenses (such as altruism, intellectualization, or introspection) [15, 16]. Although several authors have addressed the emotional difficulties of oncology clinicians when facing patients and their need to preserve themselves [7, 17, 18], no research has yet been conducted on the defenses of clinicians. For example, repeated use of less adaptive defenses, such as denial, may allow the clinician to avoid or reduce distress, but it also diminishes his ability to respond to the patient's emotions, to identify and to respond adequately to his needs, and to foster the therapeutic alliance. Results of the above-mentioned study  showed two groups of clinicians: one with a higher defensive functioning and one with a lower defensive functioning prior to CST. After the training, a difference in defensive functioning between clinicians who participated in CST and clinicians of the control group was only showed for clinicians with a higher defensive functioning. Some clinicians may therefore be more responsive to CST than others. To further address this issue, the present study aimed to evaluate the relationship between the level of adherence to an "ideally conducted interview", as defined by the teachers of the CST, and the level of the clinician' defensive functioning. We hypothesized that, after CST, clinicians with a higher defensive functioning show a greater adherence to the "ideally conducted interview" than clinicians with a lower defensive functioning.
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