A qualitative study investigating Australian cancer service outpatients' experience of distress screening and management: what is the personal relevance, acceptability and improvement opportunities from patient perspectives?

Support Care Cancer. 2021 Nov 25. doi: 10.1007/s00520-021-06671-2. Online ahead of print.


Purpose: People diagnosed with cancer experience high distress levels throughout diagnosis, treatment, and survivorship. Untreated distress is associated with poor outcomes, including worsened quality of life and higher mortality rates. Distress screening facilitates need-based access to supportive care which can optimize patient outcomes. This qualitative interview study explored outpatients' perceptions of a distress screening process implemented in an Australian cancer center.

Methods: Adult, English-speaking cancer outpatients were approached to participate in face-to-face or phone interviews after being screened by a clinic nurse using the distress thermometer (DT). The piloted semi-structured interview guide explored perceptions of the distress screening and management process, overall well-being, psychosocial support networks, and improvement opportunities for distress processes. Thematic analysis was used.

Results: Four key themes were identified in the 19 interviews conducted. Distress screening was found to be generally acceptable to participants and could be conducted by a variety of health professionals at varied time points. However, some participants found "distress" to be an ambiguous term. Despite many participants experiencing clinical distress (i.e., DT ≥ 4), few actioned referrals; some noted a preference to manage and prevent distress through informal support and well-being activities. Participants' diverse coping styles, such as positivity, acceptance, and distancing, also factored into the perceived value of screening and referrals.

Conclusion and implications: Screening models only measuring severity of distress may not be sufficient to direct care referrals, as they do not consider patients' varying coping strategies, external support networks, understanding of distress terminology, and motivations for accessing supportive care services.

Keywords: Cancer; Distress; Implementation; Psycho-oncology; Quality outcomes.