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The University of Sussex

 22 February 2002 

Cancer doctors learn how to listen

A major study by a University of Sussex psychologist into specialist communication training for cancer doctors looks set to influence Government policy.

Medics who attended Professor Lesley Fallowfield's intensive three-day training courses became much more empathic towards their patients. As a result, the patients felt their doctors cared more about them - which is a crucial element in how patients will respond to treatment.

Now the Department of Health is looking into implementing the training model on a national scale. Professor Fallowfield, who carried out the research on behalf of Cancer Research UK, is currently in discussion with Professor Mike Richards, the National Cancer Director for the Government.

"This is enormously exciting, and especially good news for the University of Sussex," says Professor Fallowfield, who runs the Cancer Research UK Psychosocial Oncology Group at the University. "We will be seen as a centre of excellence in teaching communication skills."

Some 160 doctors from 34 cancer centres in the UK and 4,000 cancer patients were used for the study. These included health professionals at the Royal Sussex County Hospital and more than 100 local patients.

The study involved observing doctors with patients in their clinics both before training and afterwards. It was found that those who had attended training courses were better at asking their patients open-ended questions, allowed their patients to tell their own story, and involved the patients more in decisions and discussions about their treatment. The patients commented that they felt their doctors really cared about them and had given them much more time. In fact, the consultations were of the same length as previously, but the time had been used more efficiently.

Professor Fallowfield says that, although trainee and newly qualified doctors have often undergone communication skills training, it is important for those already working to update their skills. "Most senior doctors have not had this sort of training," she says. "It's not helpful for new doctors to enter a system where doctors aren't communicating with their patients - or their colleagues."

Her study is to be published in The Lancet today (Friday 22 February).

 Notes for editors 

For further information, please contact Professor Lesley Fallowfield on Tel: 01273 873015. Or Jacqui Bealing, or Alison Field, University of Sussex Press Office, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 877456, or

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