Provider Communication Skill Training

Provider Communication Skill Training

PEP Topic 

Provider communication skill training is an approach in which the healthcare professional who provides services to the patient is trained to improve communication skills. Improved communication with the patient is proposed to have a positive effect on the patient’s symptoms and outcomes. Improved provider communication skills may improve assessment of the patient and the provider’s ability to facilitate effective communication by the patient, thereby enhancing symptom management. The effect of communication skill training to providers in cancer care has been examined for its effect on patient anxiety and depression and on caregiver strain and burden.

Effectiveness Not Established

Research Evidence Summaries

Fukui, S., Ogawa, K., Ohtsuka, M., & Fukui, N. (2008). A randomized study assessing the efficacy of communication skill training on patients' psychologic distress and coping: Nurses' communication with patients just after being diagnosed with cancer. Cancer, 113, 1462–1470.

doi: 10.1002/cncr.23710

Study Purpose:

To investigate whether a communication skill training program for nurses would reduce psychological distress and improve coping among patients newly diagnosed with cancer

Intervention Characteristics/Basic Study Process:

The communication skill training (CST) program involved two workshops, one at the start of the study and the other after three months. Workshops lasted six hours and were structured in a six-step approach (SPIKES) involving (1) setting up the interview, (2) assessing the patient’s perception of his or her illness, (3) obtaining a patient invitation to disclose information, (4) giving information and knowledge to the patient, (5) addressing the patient's emotion with empathic responses, and (6) strategy and summary. The program involved a large group meeting on theoretic content followed by small facilitated group work in which nurses worked through various scenarios using the SPIKES steps. Study patients were randomly assigned to be interviewed three times by nurses who attended the CST program (experimental group) or interviewed the same three times by nurses in the control group. Interviews were scheduled on the day of diagnosis, and one week and one month after diagnosis. Study measurements were done at one week after diagnosis (T1), one month after diagnosis (T2), and three months after (T3). Nurses were randomly assigned to either CST or usual care provision.

Sample Characteristics:

  • The study reported on a sample of 89 patients, plus 8 nurse participants.
  • Mean patient age in the experimental group was 61.4 ± 10.8 years; mean patient age in the control group was 60.9 ± 14.3 years.
  • The sample was 56%–61% female and 39%–40% male.
  • Patients had gastric, colorectal, and breast cancers.
  • More than 90% of study patients had surgery, 76%–81% were married, 39%–44% were unemployed, and more than 50% in both groups had stage I disease.
  • Nurse participants had a mean age of 40.8 ± 7.2 years, and mean years of experience as an oncology nurse of 17.2 ± 6.87.
  • Inclusion criteria included patients who were newly diagnosed and informed of cancer in physician consultation, were older than age 18, and had disease that was not advanced and at an operable stage.
  • Patients were excluded if they had a severe psychological problem as assessed by the physician.


  • Single site
  • Outpatient setting
  • Japan

Phase of Care and Clinical Applications:

Patients were undergoing the diagnostic phase of care.

Study Design:

A randomized controlled trial design was used.

Measurement Instruments/Methods:

  • Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS)
  • Mental Adjustment to Cancer Scale (MAC)


There was a significant different in HADS depression and total scores over time associated with group (p = 0.03). These scores declined over time in both groups; however, the decline was greater for the experimental group. There was no group interaction or for anxiety. There were no significant changes in any other HADS data. MAC score changes over time showed mixed results. The only consistent directional change in the experimental group, as compared to the control group, was in the area of fatalism, with decline over time in the experimental group and increase over time in the control group (p = 0.04).


CST appears to have a positive effect on psychological distress and some areas of coping for patients newly diagnosed with cancer.


  • The study sample was small, with less than 100 participants.
  • The study sample was purposefully homogeneous in terms of diagnoses, disease stage, and phase of care, and findings may not be applicable to other patient groups.
  • Nurses in the study had extensive years of experience in cancer care. The CST described here may not have similar effects with nurses who are less experienced in general or in oncology care.
  • The authors point out that results may have been influenced by the cultural attitude of Japanese patients and poor support systems that are seen to exist in Japan for newly diagnosed patients. These patients tend to not seek professional assistance, so the magnitude of differences in results may not be the same for other cultural groups in which professional support is more available or acceptable.
  • There was no credible evaluation of actual communications between nurses and patients or between physicians and patients that may have also influenced findings. In addition to study nurses, nurses in charge who had not been trained were always present at physician consultations and were involved in patient support afterward. There is no way to tell if charge nurse interactions were different between groups, changed over time, or were influenced by interaction with CST-trained nurses.

Nursing Implications:

Study findings support the idea that providing information, support, and empathic responses to patients can positively influence patient coping and emotional distress, and suggest that nurse training in communication skills of this nature can be useful. Further research in this area needs to demonstrate actual differences in communications between nurses and patients as a result of such training. It would be useful to see if such training can be beneficial in various groups of nurses based on differences in nursing education level and experience.

Systematic Review/Meta-Analysis

Moore, P.M., Rivera Mercado, S., Grez Artigues, M., & Lawrie, T.A. (2013). Communication skills training for healthcare professionals working with people who have cancer. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2013(3). 

doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003751.pub3


STUDY PURPOSE: To assess the effects of communication skills training for healthcare professionals involved in cancer care
TYPE OF STUDY: Meta-analysis and systematic review

Search Strategy:

DATABASES USED: CENTRAL, MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, AMED, SIGLE, PsycINFO, dissertation abstracts, evidence-based medicine reviews
KEYWORDS: Detailed search documentation provided in article appendix
INCLUSION CRITERIA: Studies that involved communication skills training interventions of any type for all professionals and allied healthcare providers; randomized, controlled trials, or cluster-randomized studies

Literature Evaluated:

EVALUATION METHOD AND COMMENTS ON LITERATURE USED: Evaluation of risk of bias according to the Cochrane Handbook

Sample Characteristics:

FINAL NUMBER STUDIES INCLUDED = 15 studies with 10 studies in meta-analysis
TOTAL PATIENTS INCLUDED IN REVIEW = 1,147 professionals (2,105 patient encounters)
KEY SAMPLE CHARACTERISTICS: Only two studies examined effects on anxiety; one study examined effects on depression


Two studies evaluated patient anxiety using the Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. Anxiety declined in both study groups, but the reduction in anxiety was significantly greater in the control group (n = 169, SMD = .4, p = .02). Other results of training explored were sensitivity of communications, display of empathy, patient trust, quality of life, and patient recall of information, distress, and satisfaction. One study showed no impact on patient depression.


Provider communication skill training was not shown to have a positive effect on patients' level of anxiety or depression. Physician training was more likely to result in communications showing empathy.


Type, duration, and timing of training interventions were very diverse, making the synthesis of findings difficult. Similarly, the timing of study follow-up assessments varied. For the individual outcomes examined, the number of available studies was small.

Nursing Implications:

Communication skill training is likely to improve some communication skills of providers, but evidence regarding any impact of this on patient outcomes is lacking, and long-term effects are unknown. The most effective training method also is unclear. Given the current emphasis on shared decision-making and patient-centered care, the importance of provider communication and information-giving skills is evident. The content of training should be aimed at achieving these aspects and empowering patients. Further research is needed to determine the best approaches to achieve these goals.