Background: Modern cancer treatments can cure or prolong patients' lives. However, the associated physical and psychosocial problems can detrimentally affect patients' compliance with treatment and, ultimately, their outcomes. Therefore, oncologists need to recognize the problems experienced by their patients and, when possible, help resolve these problems.
Methods: The authors conducted a cross-sectional survey of physical symptoms, anxiety, depression, and perceived needs among 204 consenting patients visiting an outpatient medical oncology department. Immediately following consultations with consenting patients, medical oncologists and registrars also completed a survey in which they indicated their perception of each patient's level of each problem. These two data sets were then compared.
Results: Five oncologists' perceptions of patients' levels of the major physical symptoms cited in the survey (fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and hair loss) demonstrated the highest levels of awareness, with sensitivity rates up to 80%. Although sensitivity was less than 50% for all other physical symptoms, specificity was greater than 78% for all symptoms except fatigue. Only 17% of patients classified as clinically anxious and 6% of those classified as clinically depressed were perceived as such by their oncologists. However, the oncologists perceived much higher levels of perceived needs than patients reported, resulting in high sensitivity but low specificity rates. Oncologists' knowledge of and rapport with their patients and the pressure of their workloads were associated with their awareness of their patients' reported problems.
Conclusions: Medical oncologists' perceptions may not accurately reflect their patients' reported physical and psychosocial experiences. Further interventions should be developed to assist oncologists in detecting such problems, especially psychosocial ones.