Developing Communication Skills

Key Messages

  • Clear communication is an essential ingredient of quality palliative care. [1]
  • Ongoing refresher training can help palliative care staff to improve their skills in discussing end-of-life (EoL). [2,3]
  • Communication education should include prognostication, conflict management and empathetic communication. [4]
  • Strategies such as ‘Fishing’ and ‘Hypothetical’ questions framed in a general context can smooth the initiation of end-of-life discussions. [5]
  • Sensitivity is important in balancing the sincerity and gravity of end-of-life issues. [5]
  • Communication tools do not generally have favourable outcomes with the exception of written prompt questions in EOL discussions. [2,6]
  • Advance care planning (ACP) and documenting of preferences is best facilitated by a trained health professional. Multiple discussions may be needed. [7]


Health professionals not specialised in palliative care service, frequently report finding end-of-life discussions uncomfortable and hard to initiate. Clinicians seek evidence-based guidance on strategies for discussing end-of-life matters with people and their significant others.

This page aims to provide an overview of barriers and promoters for interdisciplinary communication as well as with older adults at end-of-life.

Evidence Summary

Good communication at the end of a person’s life involves the ability to both give and receive information at a time where strong emotions and stress can affect even the most experienced clinician. Developed communication skills can be valuable. For health professionals, having as much information as possible from the patient is vital to ensure any plans and decisions are inclusive and that staff are advocating appropriately for them. 

There is consensus that people who have a terminal diagnosis should be provided with opportunities to discuss their future care and treatment preferences in the form of advance care planning (ACP) discussions (see also Advance Care Planning and Communication at End-of-Life pages). People and their families dealing with a life-limiting illness rarely raise the topic of end-of-life preferences, and often look to their medical team to raise it. However, health professionals frequently report finding these discussions uncomfortable and hard to initiate, [2] particularly where there is uncertainty as to whether the person and their family are ready or willing to accept the information. [5] In addition, there is an increasing need for provision of palliative care services to older adults, often in a community or residential aged care context, from non-specialist health professionals. As such, ambiguity regarding roles and anxiety over ability to communicate sensitive information to people is partially responsible for end-of-life planning and discussion being delayed or not occurring at all. [1,2]

Currently there are no standard definitions of a communication intervention for upskilling health professionals and there is substantial variation in delivery, content and measurable outcomes in the literature. General consensus is that training should include strategies for effectively communicating prognostic information, mediating disagreement, supporting people and their family by acting on their statements and nonverbal cues and responding to their needs to facilitate shared decision making. [4] The use of role-playing as part of an educational approach with refresher training is thought to have favourable outcomes for increased confidence and knowledge. [2,3,5]

Communication tools such as prompt questions have been shown to assist with initiation of end-of-life discussions in one review [2], but otherwise tools have not demonstrated significant difference to usual care. Conversely, a review of how language is used in such discussions found a number of questioning techniques that were successful in initiating conversations while promoting clinician sincerity and empathy. [5]

In summary, there is evidence that communication training for health care professionals in palliative care is warranted. Common features of successful interventions are that they should include combined components of training, patient discussion, education and written documentation delivered via mixed teaching methods e.g. didactic, role-playing etc. Key outcomes should be that training facilitates patient understanding of their condition, prognosis where possible and promoting of ACP discussions. ACP conversations should focus on goals of care rather than specific treatments and clinicians should be responsive to the emotional reaction to discussions. [7] Further research in an aged care and palliative context is needed. [1-3,7]

Quality Statement

Overall the quality of the evidence was found to be low with limitations generally from the lack of reporting on the quality of the studies included and the paucity of robust study design.

Page updated 24 May 2017


  • References

  • About PubMed Search

  1. Gardiner C, Gott M, Ingleton C. Factors supporting good partnership working between generalist and specialist palliative care services: a systematic review. Br J Gen Pract. 2012 May;62(598):e353-62.
  2. Walczak A, Butow PN, Bu S, Clayton JM. A systematic review of evidence for end-of-life communication interventions: Who do they target, how are they structured and do they work? Patient Educ Couns. 2016 Jan;99(1):3-16.
  3. Chung HO, Oczkowski SJ, Hanvey L, Mbuagbaw L, You JJ. Educational interventions to train healthcare professionals in end-of-life communication: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Med Educ. 2016 Apr 29;16:131.
  4. Schram AW, Hougham GW, Meltzer DO, Ruhnke GW. Palliative Care in Critical Care Settings: A Systematic Review of Communication-Based Competencies Essential for Patient and Family Satisfaction. Am J Hosp Palliat Care. 2016 Jan 1:1049909116667071.
  5. Parry R, Land V, Seymour J. How to communicate with patients about future illness progression and end of life: a systematic review. BMJ Support Palliat Care. 2014 Dec;4(4):331-41.
  6. Oczkowski SJ, Chung HO, Hanvey L, Mbuagbaw L, You JJ. Communication tools for end-of-life decision-making in the intensive care unit: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Crit Care. 2016 Apr 9;20:97.
  7. Barnes S, Gardiner C, Gott M, Payne S, Chady B, Small N, et al. Enhancing patient-professional communication about end-of-life issues in life-limiting conditions: a critical review of the literature. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2012 Dec;44(6):866-79.


The focus of this topic is on the learning, teaching or current communication skills of health care staff.


Final search

(((ed[sh] OR education[mh]) AND communication[mh]) OR (Communicat*[ti] AND (train*[ti] OR educat*[ti] OR workshop*[ti] OR module*[ti] OR teach*[ti] OR curricul*[ti] OR learn*[ti] OR course*[ti] OR program*[ti] OR skill[ti] OR skills[ti] OR competenc*[ti])))