Context: Improving health-related quality of life (HRQL) is an important goal of palliative treatment, but little is known about actual patient-physician communication regarding HRQL topics during palliative treatment.
Objectives: To investigate the content of routine communication regarding 4 specific HRQL issues between oncologists and their patients and to identify patient-, physician-, and visit-specific factors significantly associated with discussion of such issues.
Design: Observational study conducted between June 1996 and January 1998.
Setting: Outpatient palliative chemotherapy clinic of a cancer hospital in the Netherlands.
Participants: Ten oncologists and 240 of their patients (72% female; mean age, 55 years) who had incurable cancer and were receiving outpatient palliative chemotherapy.
Main outcome measures: Patient and physician questionnaires and audiotape analysis of communication regarding daily activities, emotional functioning, pain, and fatigue during an outpatient consultation using the Roter Interaction Analysis System.
Results: Physicians devoted 64% of their conversation to medical/technical issues and 23% to HRQL issues. Patients' communication behavior was divided more equally between medical/technical issues (41%) and HRQL topics (48%). Of the independent variables investigated, patients' self-reported HRQL was the most powerful predictor of discussing HRQL issues. Nevertheless, in 20% to 54% of the consultations in which patients were experiencing serious HRQL problems, no time was devoted to discussion of those problems. In particular, these patients' emotional functioning and fatigue were unaddressed 54% and 48% of the time, respectively. Discussion of HRQL issues was not more frequent in consultations in which tumor response was evaluated.
Conclusion: Despite increasing recognition of the importance of maintaining patients' HRQL as a goal of palliative treatment, the amount of patient-physician communication devoted to such issues remains limited and appears to make only a modest contribution, at least in an explicit sense, to the evaluation of treatment efficacy in daily clinical practice.