Cancer patients stay mum on treatment problems

Study underscores need to improve doctor-patient communication

Topics: Patient Experience, Quality, Performance Improvement, Oncology, Service Lines

April 23, 2012

Many cancer patients who had issues with their treatment said nothing to the physician they felt was responsible and rarely reported the problem to hospital administration, according to a new study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The survey of 400 cancer breast and colon cancer patients found that more than one in five thought something "went wrong" during the course of their treatment that could have been averted. Interviews with 78 patients—the majority of whom were women treated for breast cancer—also revealed that:

  • 75% cited communication problems with their provider, such as not receiving enough information or being provided with inaccurate information about their diagnosis;
  • 50% said an error occurred during the medical care itself, including surgical problems, infections, or perceived delays in care;
  • Nearly all felt that their issues with their doctor had caused psychological harm, while a majority said it resulted in pain and the need for additional treatment; and
  • Many also cited financial costs and life disruptions such as missed work.

Despite the numerous issues identified, the survey revealed that just one-third of the respondents had reported the event with the doctor or nurse responsible for their care, and only 10 patients formally notified hospital administration of the error.

According to the study's lead author Kathleen Mazor, from the Meyes Primary Care Institute and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the survey underscores the need for patients to "speak up" about their treatment concerns. She also noted that hospitals should more clearly convey to patients where they can go if an issue arises.

Doctors should also strive to speak more with their patients and encourage them to be more open, according to Jeffrey Peppercorn of Duke University Medical Center, who wrote a commentary that accompanied the study. "We need to more generally improve communication with patients about their experience over the course of care," he wrote (Pittman, Reuters, 4/18).

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