Oncology Nurses to Provide Information Patients Forget

October 24, 2008
Julia Ernst, MS

People learning that they have cancer tend to remember less than half of what their physician tells them during an office visit.

People learning that they have cancer tend to remember less than half of what their physician tells them during an office visit, a new study found, and people hearing the worst prognosis generally remember even fewer details.

Researchers in the Netherlands and Australia reported on their findings in the October 20 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The study included 260 people who had been diagnosed and were at their first appointment with a medical or radiation oncologist.

After the appointment, which lasted on average for 30 minutes and was tape-recorded, researchers followed-up with volunteers by telephone to assess what they remembered from the appointment. Age was the most prominent factor in how much patients remembered: people younger than age 65 years recalled about 49.5% of what their physician had said, whereas older participants remembered about 48.4%.

The study also found that older patients generally asked fewer questions and, surprisingly, that people who asked more questions remembered less after the appointment. Nurses can help increase awareness for all patients by encouraging them to ask about anything that they don’t understand or stopping the doctor if a term doesn’t make sense. They can also serve as a secondary source, where patients can gather information and learn more about topics mentioned only in brief by physicians.

Oncology nurses who work in hospitals or physicians’ offices may often have to fill in these blanks of forgotten information. Nurses should be able to explain to a patient the differences between acute mylogenous leukemia and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, for example, to forgetful patients who will likely have much more interaction with their oncology nurse than their oncologist.

For those patients who learn of a more dire prognosis, nurses can serve as a comfort but also as a resource, providing information, encouraging them to do further research on their own. Having more of a role in the treatment of their illnesses might make patients feel more in control and possibly more able to fight their cancers. Nurses can suggest support groups, reputable and useful online resources, and literature that could help to guide patients in these directions.

A separate issue the study addressed was the role of religious beliefs in cancer treatment. Muslims undergoing cancer treatment may feel that they have to fast during the month of Ramadan, which could have negative correlations for their treatment regimens. Oncology nurses need to be able to discuss with patients and their family members the possibility of engaging in practices that go against religious beliefs during treatment, in order to improve chances of survival. If nurses are not successful in these discussions, they can bring in religious leaders of their patients, who might be better able to convince their followers.