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Open Access Research article

Information from physicians and retention of information by patients – Obstacles to the awareness of patients of progressing disease when life is near the end

Lena Hoff* and Göran Hermerén

Author Affiliations

Department of Medical Ethics, Lund University, Sweden

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BMC Palliative Care 2008, 7:2  doi:10.1186/1472-684X-7-2

Published: 28 February 2008



Discrepancies between the information that patients have received and the patients' awareness of their condition have frequently been observed in literature and given a number of different explanations. The chief contribution of this study is that by following patients over time it is possible not only to notice any changes in the patients' knowledge or awareness of their disease, but also to investigate the interview material for possible reasons for those changes. Since the study is based on two different groups of patients it will also be possible to notice if the category of disease matters for patients' awareness of their condition.


Twelve patients with malign haematological diseases or lung cancer were followed with interviews from diagnosis to cure or death, or at most for two years. The method is qualitative. Semi-structured interviews were conducted, transcribed into written text, and then used for a qualitative content analysis.


During the process of analysis four different expressions (subcategories) emerged about the awareness of patients concerning their health status: informed and aware, not informed and not aware, aware though not informed, or not aware though informed. Then the search started for obstacles to the awareness of patients regarding their progressing disease and approaching death. Four kinds of obstacles were found: due to the physician, the patient, the physician and the patient in collusion, or neither to the physician nor the patient but the insidious way in which lung cancer (mostly) and haematological malignancies (occasionally) progress.


To optimize the care of patients who wish to be informed and aware during their disease, it is important that the health care staff recognizes potential obstacles to the awareness of patients in order to minimize such obstacles. The physicians could improve their communication with patients with life-threatening diseases, and avoid having a narrow focus on the treatment calendar. The patients could be encouraged to have a more proactive attitude in their communication with their physician.