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Cancer Patients Value Forthrightness, Compassion From Their Radiation Oncologists, UPCI Study Finds

PITTSBURGH, Nov. 4, 2009 – Cancer patients undergoing radiation treatment value forthrightness and compassion from their radiation oncologists, according to a study led by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI). Results from the study, which sought to understand what cancer patients want from relationships with their physicians, will be presented on Wednesday, Nov. 4, during the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) annual meeting in Chicago.

“In oncology, a strong physician-patient relationship is essential,” said Ajay Bhatnagar, M.D., adjunct assistant professor of radiation oncology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and lead author of the study. “A patient’s interaction with his or her doctor can help the patient make important treatment decisions, such as what cancer treatment is best for that individual. Ultimately, we aim to help oncologists improve patient care and provide greater patient satisfaction.”

“Learning to more effectively communicate with our patients, to understand what makes them comfortable so they are more likely to hear what we have to say, is extremely important,” said Dr. Bhatnagar. “Patients make life and death decisions under our care, and as physicians it is important to understand, as much as is possible, what influences their thought processes.”

The study found that nearly three-quarters of the patients (72 percent) preferred to be called by their first name, even among elderly patients. Females preferred this more often than males (76 percent to 66 percent), and white patients preferred it more often than black patients (74 percent to 56 percent). Additionally, while 95 percent of all patients wanted their oncologists to be forthright with them about their chances of survival, there was a significantly increased preference for forthrightness among prostate cancer patients compared to lung cancer patients.

The study involved 508 patients who underwent radiation treatment for breast, prostate or lung cancer between June 2006 and March 2008. Patients answered a variety of questions focusing on the patient-doctor relationship at three different intervals: prior to initial consultation, at the midpoint of treatment and at the completion of radiation therapy. The patients were randomized into two groups, based on whether their oncologists reviewed their initial patient preference survey responses (the experimental group) or did not (the control group). At the time of completion, patients also completed a satisfaction survey.

Nearly three-quarters of all patients were neutral about whether their radiation oncologist wore a white coat, and 95 percent of high school graduates showed a greater preference for having their radiation treatment described in everyday language as opposed to complicated medical terminology by their radiation oncologists, compared to 91 percent of college graduates and 84 percent of post-graduate patients.

This study was funded by ASTRO.

As the only NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center in western Pennsylvania, UPCI is a recognized leader in providing innovative cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment; bio-medical research; compassionate patient care and support; and community-based outreach services. UPCI investigators are world-renowned for their work in clinical and basic cancer research.

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