Oncologists underestimate patient use of complementary medicine after breast cancer diagnosis

Nearly three-quarters of breast cancer patients (73%) report using at least one type of complementary medicine after cancer diagnosis, while oncologists believe that less than half (43%) of patients are using these approaches during cancer care. These and other findings from a national survey of oncologists and breast cancer patients were released in conjunction with the 2021 ASCO Annual Meeting. The study found that doctors report discussing integrative health with only about half of patients, leading patients to seek information outside the clinic.

Cancer is a complex disease that affects every component of a patient's life. While conventional medicine is effective for curing disease, it can fall short in helping patients heal. Patients are turning to these therapies to looking for hope and to improve their quality of life and wellbeing after diagnosis, but they are looking for more guidance from their oncologists."

Wayne Jonas, MD, report co-author and executive director for Integrative Health Programs at the Samueli Foundation

A national survey of 115 clinical oncologists who treat breast cancer was conducted in late 2020 alongside a similar survey of 164 breast cancer patients who had been diagnosed within two years of the survey. The poll was conducted by IQVIA, a global provider of advanced analytics, technology solutions, and clinical research services to the life sciences industry, to understand awareness, usage, and attitudes toward the use of complementary and lifestyle therapies in addition to medical treatment.

In the study, the researchers found that two-thirds of oncologists (66%) and patients (65%) believe using complementary and lifestyle therapies improve patients' quality of life. Many patients (60%) also believe these treatments lead to better health outcomes. Interestingly, patient use of tai chi/chi gong or acupuncture had the strongest correlation with positive impact on quality of life among the 12 modalities tested.

The survey also gauged patients' and physicians' awareness of complementary and lifestyle therapies and sources of information for patients. Most oncologists reported familiarity with at least one therapy. These physicians saw nutrition consultation, support groups, psycho-oncology support, and exercise consultation as the most important integrative services. However, they gave relatively low marks to spiritual services and meditation or mindfulness--two approaches that patients see as important. Patients also recall their care teams providing fewer recommendations about these two modalities than the others.

While oncologists and patients agree that an oncologist, oncology nurse, or patient navigator is a good source of information for complementary medicine and lifestyle therapies, patients have a slight preference to hear directly from the oncologists.

"Many oncologists are generally supportive of integrating complementary and lifestyle therapies with conventional medical treatment, but the education and guidance given to patients varies widely," said Terri Crudup, Senior Principal of Primary Intelligence at IQVIA. "Oncologists and the institutions at which they practice should look for methods to educate and expose patients to a variety of safe and effective complementary and lifestyle therapies to find the ones that will help their patients most."

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