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How best to communicate bad news over the telephone
  1. Elizabeth Taylor
  1. Elizabeth Taylor, at the time of writing, was Compass Project Manager (a telephone advice service), NHS Direct, NHS Direct South London, Beckenham, Kent.


This article examines communication issues relating to breaking the news of a sudden and/or unexpected death to family members. It focuses particularly on the delivery of bad news over the telephone. Often it is the nurse who has to make the call. When dealing with unexpected death, nurses may be unsure what to say and resort to various euphemisms or anecdotal practices without full understanding of their implications. Current literature and guidelines will be reviewed in order to inform nurses regarding best practice techniques for communicating with relatives facing unexpected death. The importance of planning for sudden death through building relationships with patients and their families will be discussed. Particular focus is placed on communication skills and the relevance for nurses of training in this area. The ethical dilemma regarding what to say and when will also be explored. Practical suggestions will be included to illustrate points and encourage discussion among colleagues. Conflict of interests: none

  • Breaking bad news
  • Communication skills
  • Sudden death
  • Telephone communication

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