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Nurse bandaging cancer patient’s arm
Photo by Rhoda Baer

SAN DIEGO—A study of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patients has revealed misperceptions about treatment risks and the likelihood of cure.

Investigators surveyed 100 AML patients receiving intensive and non-intensive chemotherapy, as well as the patients’ oncologists.

The results showed that patients tended to overestimate both the risk of dying due to treatment and the likelihood of cure.

These findings were presented at the 2017 Palliative and Supportive Care in Oncology Symposium (abstract 43).

“Patients with AML face very challenging treatment decisions that are often placed upon them within days after being diagnosed,” said study investigator Areej El-Jawahri, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

“Because they face a grave decision, they need to understand what the risks of treatment are versus the possibility of a cure.”

For this study, Dr El-Jawahri and her colleagues enrolled 50 patients who were receiving intensive care for AML (which usually meant hospitalization for 4 to 6 weeks) and 50 patients who were receiving non-intensive care (often given as outpatient treatment).

The patients’ median age was 71 (range, 60-100), and 92% were white. Six percent of patients had low-risk disease, 48% had intermediate-risk, and 46% had high-risk disease.

Within 3 days of starting treatment, both the patients and their physicians were given a questionnaire to assess how they perceived the likelihood of the patient dying from treatment.

One month later, patients and physicians completed a follow-up questionnaire to assess perceptions of patient prognosis. Within that time frame, most patients received laboratory results that more definitively established the type and stage of cancer.

At 24 weeks, the investigators asked patients if they had discussed their end-of-life wishes with their oncologists.

Results

Initially, most of the patient population (91.3%) thought it was “somewhat” or “extremely” likely they would die from their treatment. However, only 22% of treating oncologists said the same.

One month later, a majority of patients in both treatment groups thought it was “somewhat” or “extremely” likely they would be cured of their AML.

Specifically, 82.1% of patients receiving non-intensive chemotherapy said it was “somewhat” or “extremely” likely they would be cured, while 10% of their oncologists said the same.

Meanwhile, 97.6% of patients receiving intensive chemotherapy said it was “somewhat” or “extremely” likely they would be cured, and 42% of their oncologists said the same.

Overall, 77.8% of patients said they had not discussed their end-of-life wishes with their oncologists at 24 weeks.

“There were several very important factors we were not able to capture in our study, including what was actually discussed between patients and their oncologists and whether patients simply misunderstood or misheard the information conveyed to them,” Dr El-Jawahri said.

“Perhaps most importantly, we did not audio-record the discussions between the patients and their physicians, which could provide additional details regarding barriers to accurate prognostic understanding in these conversations.”

Related research and next steps

Prior to this study, Dr El-Jawahri and her colleagues had looked at similar perceptions in patients with solid tumor malignancies as well as in patients with hematologic malignancies who were receiving hematopoietic stem cell transplants.

The gaps in perception of treatment risk and cure for patients compared to their physicians were not as large in those cases as in the AML patients in this study. The investigators attribute this to higher levels of distress seen in AML patients due to the urgency of their treatment decisions.

Dr El-Jawahri and her colleagues have found that early consideration of palliative care in a treatment plan for patients with solid tumors improves patients’ understanding of the prognosis. The team hopes to implement a similar study in patients with AML.

“Clearly, there are important communication gaps between oncologists and their patients,” Dr El-Jawahri said. “We need to find ways to help physicians do a better job of communicating with their patients, especially in diseases like AML where stress levels are remarkably high.”


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