Panel urges cancer patient mental screening

WASHINGTON Tue Oct 23, 2007 5:11pm EDT

File photo shows Dr. Maurice Nahabedian (L), who reconstructed cancer patient Deborah Charles' breast after a mastectomy, discussing upcoming operations with her during an appointment at Georgetown university Hospital in Washington, May 29, 2007. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

File photo shows Dr. Maurice Nahabedian (L), who reconstructed cancer patient Deborah Charles' breast after a mastectomy, discussing upcoming operations with her during an appointment at Georgetown university Hospital in Washington, May 29, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Bourg

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Doctors treating cancer patients should try harder to help them deal with the emotional toll the disease exacts, an expert panel said on Tuesday.

The panel convened by the Institute of Medicine recommended that cancer care providers systematically screen patients for emotional distress and other mental problems and connect them with people who can help.

The medical establishment has worked hard to develop new and better ways to treat tumors while devoting less effort to patients' emotional needs, the panel said.

"We have spent gazillions of dollars for getting Cadillac treatments for the biomedical piece of it. But we haven't spent money on the gas to make it go," said Nancy Adler, a professor of medical psychology at the University of California, San Francisco who headed the panel.

Many cancer patients undergo harsh chemotherapy and radiation treatments and sometimes disfiguring surgical operations. They suffer prolonged nausea, fatigue, pain and hair loss and are unable to work or maintain social or family obligations.

And some often have little time left to live.

"Unmet psychosocial needs are common among cancer patients and their families. There are services available that could help them. But right now, they're not being linked up to these services," Adler said in a telephone interview.

Psychosocial health services are an integral part of cancer care, the panel said. Many such services already exist, often at no cost to patients, but care providers often fail to identify patients' needs and do not help them find and use these resources, the committee said.

Screening patients to find those who might need more support for emotional issues may be as simple in some cases as a short questionnaire that a patient would fill out while sitting in the doctor's office waiting room, Adler said.

The panel said it is important that cancer care providers not only screen patients for emotional issues but periodically re-evaluate them to see if their needs have changed.

Such needs might include more information about medical therapies they are undergoing and their possible side effects, treatment for depression and assistance with normal daily activities they can no longer do on their own, the panel said.

The Institute of Medicine advises U.S. policymakers on medical issues.

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