The Internet is turning into a boon for cancer care, with researchers reporting that web savvy patients are more likely to get the latest treatments.
Although studies have found that about 40 percent of cancer patients look to the Internet for medical information, it hasn't been clear just how that information influences their choice of treatments, the researchers noted.
"We looked at how colon cancer patients used health information to try to make decisions about things related to their treatment," said lead researcher Dr Stacy Gray, from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
To start with, the team found that 69 percent of the colon cancer patients they interviewed said they actively looked for treatment information.
"These high levels of treatment information-seeking were very strongly associated with both awareness of new novel therapies for colon cancer, and also [the] patient's report of receiving those therapies," Gray said. "Information-seeking may have the potential to influence the treatments patients receive, and potentially their medical outcome."
The report is published in the April 1 issue of the journal Cancer.
How the study was done
For the study, Gray's team collected data on 633 patients with colon cancer from the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry. The researchers looked specifically at the use of two targeted therapies for the disease, bevacizumab (Avastin) and cetuximab (Erbitux), among these patients.
The researchers found that people who used the media to get information about colon cancer and its treatment were 2.8 times more likely to have heard about these newer treatments, and 3.2 times more likely to have gotten these treatments, compared to those who did not research their disease.
The association between information-gathering and choosing these treatments remained strong when the treatments were used in advanced colon cancer, as approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, or when used for early disease, where the use of these drugs is not FDA-approved, the researchers noted.
Nature of link unclear
Whether patients are suggesting these treatments to their doctors or whether they are researching treatments their doctors prescribe remains an open question, however, Gray added.
Some patients looked for information on the Internet to prepare for doctor visits, while others heard about a TV program on cancer and made sure to watch it, Gray said. "Other people are getting pamphlets from their doctors, and some people are seeking second opinions from other physicians," she said.
People researching their medical problems through the media is a growing trend, Gray said. "Over the last 30 years, people have been assuming a greater role in their health care. We see a lot more health consumerism, where people are expected to, and want to, be an active part of the decision-making process," she said.
Gray cautioned, however, that not all sources of medical information are credible.
"I recommend that patients talk to their doctor about high-quality sources of information. There are also some very good Web sites for cancer information, such as the US National Cancer Institute or the American Society of Clinical Oncology or the American Cancer Society," she said.
For other diseases, Gray recommends the US National Institutes of Health and foundation or association Web sites devoted to specific diseases, such as the American Heart Association.
Also see Health24's extensive library of disease information - all of which has been reviewed by medical doctors.
Dr Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, wondered if what this study really uncovers is another barrier to care unrelated to whether a patient has information or not, namely money and medical scheme coverage (insurance).
"But what if there was another factor, such as medical scheme coverage - could patients afford the drug? Are people who have inadequate coverage more likely not to be information-seekers? Or are we ignoring a factor we know is a significant predictor of health-care outcomes," Lichtenfeld said. "If you have good coverage and you have the money, your outcomes are better."
In any case, he said that patients, particularly those with cancer, need to be informed about their medical conditions. "People need to get information. They need to get it from reputable sources," he said. "The Internet can provide that. There is valid, valuable information out there. At the same time, they need to be cautious about getting so much information that they are overwhelmed." -
(HealthDayNews, February 2009)