Most Patients Want Complementary Therapies at the Start of Cancer Care

While most patients want to learn more about complementary therapies, like exercise and nutrition, before undergoing cancer treatment, barriers exist to both patients and clinicians, research found.

Most patients want to learn about complementary therapies — such as exercise, nutrition, counseling, massage and meditation — before starting their treatment regimen, but only one-third (33%) of oncologists agree on that being the appropriate time to introduce such information, according to a survey conducted by the Samueli Foundation.

The survey included 1,004 patients with cancer who received their diagnosis within the last two years. Sixty-two percent of patients reported wanting to know about complementary therapies before starting treatment, while 40% reported that if they had the opportunity to, they would go back and choose a cancer treatment center that offered these types of services. Additionally, 35% of patients said they would have been more satisfied with their cancer care if they were offered mental health support or therapy, mindfulness and spiritual services.

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“Patients want more information about their options so they can make informed decisions about their overall treatment — both traditional and complementary together,” Dr. Wayne Jonas, executive director of Integrative Health Programs at Samueli Foundation, said in a press release. “It’s up to providers to engage in conversations with their patients to better understand the ‘whole person’ who is coming for care and to foster treatment plans catered to individuals.”

The researchers also surveyed 150 oncologists; of which 76% reported wanting to learn more about the benefits of complementary therapies when given alongside traditional cancer treatments. However, many doctors cited barriers, namely lack of insurance reimbursement (49%), lack of staff (39%), a misperception that patients are not interested (32%) and a lack of time to have conversations about complementary therapies with patients (31%).

Despite more patients wanting to see complementary services at the start of care, a higher percentage of oncologists (60%) said that they strongly agree that integrative therapies can help manage side effects and improve wellbeing, compared with patients (50%).

Forty percent of all people surveyed — both patients and oncologists — said that they believed that these types of services could improve survival outcomes. This opinion was more strongly held for patients living in urban areas (55% reported that complementary services could improve outcomes) and those aged 18-50 (72%), compared to patients from rural areas (35%) and those aged 75 and older (23%).

“It’s clear that clinicians, insurers, and hospitals need to both learn about and offer more access to information and treatment options,” said Jonas. “Patients and oncologists want to see the benefits of treating the whole person instead of just the disease, yet many systems are established in a way that prevents that kind of care.”

When it came to actually using complementary services, 66% of patients reported that they used at least one service, though the majority did not tell their oncologist about it. The most commonly used integrative services were:

  • Nutrition consultation (35%)
  • Mental health support or therapy (27%)
  • Exercise consultation (26%)
  • Meditation or mindfulness (26%)
  • Spiritual services (25%)

Common barriers to complementary services were lack of knowledge about them or patients’ cancer treatment centers not offering them, according to the survey.

“Hospitals and providers need to offer more care options alongside traditional cancer treatment to enhance patient satisfaction and improve quality and length of life for persons with cancer,” said Jonas. “By offering integrative health care options, medical providers can meet the exploding demand from patients. It's up to us, as health care providers, to learn about and advocate for more treatment options that go beyond just pills and procedures."

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