Head and Neck Cancer Patients Call for Improvements in Care

A qualitative analysis of 20 people with head and neck cancer (HNC) has led to recommendations for improvements in care.

HNC has a high burden of treatment-related adverse events, along with frequent trouble with speech, swallowing, facial disfigurement, and psychological distress.

Among cancer patients, “they have the highest rates of emergency department use and hospitalization during treatment. They also have the highest rates of psychological distress. We have some Ontario data that shows they’ve got the highest rates of suicide and self-harm. So I think this is a really special population that we need to support,” Christopher Noel, MD, PhD, said in an interview. Noel was the lead author of the study, which was published in JAMA Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery.

These issues can strongly affect quality of life, and even patient outcomes. “Even a 1-day interruption in treatment has been shown to impact oncologic outcomes. This is a very big issue whether you’re a surgeon, a medical oncologist, or a radiation oncologist,” said Noel, who is a resident physician at the University of Toronto.

He advocates that physicians interview patients and review the results in a structured way and then act on it. “If we just rely on patient [provided] communication, we’re going to miss about 50% of patient symptoms,” he said.

The researchers aimed for the patient’s perspective on treatment. “What is the patient’s perception of going through head neck cancer and their treatment, and managing their symptoms at home? And where do they think that we could do better?” Noel asked.

The most pressing issue was that patients felt their emotional and informational needs often were not met. That challenge is even harder for patients who have trouble communicating, which in turn makes them more prone to isolation and loneliness. Many felt that they had to get the information on their own. “They wanted it to be a more effortless process,” said Noel.

He described one patient with oropharynx cancer who was able to talk to people about her grief over her diagnosis, but treatment led to her throat becoming swollen and she lost the ability to communicate. “She felt very isolated and lonely. She really highlighted the emotional and psychosocial barriers in cancer care. Her treatment inherently leaves her feeling very isolated and lonely, and she had such a hard time connecting with a psychotherapist,” Noel said.

Another common issue revolved around efforts to communicate about symptoms and adverse effects of treatment. Resources often aren’t available on evenings or weekends, and it can take time for a nurse to call them back. Patients wanted to see more modern approaches, such as use of email or apps.

The patients in the study recommended 11 health care improvements.

  • 1. Nurse navigator teams should have hours extended to evenings and weekends.

  • 2. Patient communication methods should be expanded, using methods like email or apps.

  • 3. HNC resources should be more broadly disseminated.

  • 4. Education and information approaches should be individualized to the patient.

  • 5. All HNC patients should be offered psychological resources.

  • 6. Mental health needs should be assessed repeatedly throughout treatment and extended care.

  • 7. Physicians should recognize the added symptom burden often faced by patients who travel extensively for treatment.

  • 8. Partners and caregivers should be included as part of the treatment team.

  • 9. Share symptom data with patients, which can improve engagement.

  • 10. Review symptom scores and act on them regularly.

  • 11. A member of the care team should be identified to oversee symptom management.

Noel had no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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