Australian oncologists' self-reported knowledge and attitudes about non-traditional therapies used by cancer patients

Sallie Newell and Rob W Sanson-Fisher
Med J Aust 2000; 172 (3): 110-113.
Published online: 7 February 2000
Abstract Objective: To assess Australian radiation and medical oncologists' self-reported knowledge about and attitudes towards a range of non-traditional therapies used by people with cancer.
Design: Postal survey during May and June 1997 of all 265 radiation and medical oncologists practising in Australia.
Participants: 161 oncologists returned surveys (61% response rate).
Main outcome measures: Oncologists' own level of knowledge, and, for each known therapy, their perceptions of its likely harm or benefit in patients being treated curatively and palliatively, and of the prevalence of use among their patients.
Results: Oncologists reported knowing most about acupuncture, antioxidant therapy and meditation and least about cellular therapy, magnetotherapy and psychic surgery. The therapies most likely to be considered helpful were meditation, acupuncture and hypnotherapy. Those most likely to be considered harmful were coffee enemas, psychic surgery, Iscador therapy and diet therapies. Perceptions of patients' use of most therapies varied widely, with herbal therapies, antioxidant therapy and meditation considered the most commonly used.
Conclusions: These results indicate self-identified gaps in oncologists' knowledge about non-traditional therapies their patients may use; they suggest a need to consider including education about these therapies in oncologists' training.

Introduction Recent studies have confirmed the popularity of non-traditional therapies among Australian cancer patients: 22%-52% of medical oncology patients,1,2 40% of those being treated palliatively3 and 46% of children with cancer4 report using at least one non-traditional therapy. Many of the most popular non-traditional therapies are psychosocial (eg, relaxation, meditation and visual imagery) and are unlikely to pose threats to patients' health.1-4 However, other popular therapies include dietary therapies, antioxidants, high dose vitamins and herbal therapies,1-4 many of which are poorly evaluated and could pose physical threats to patients, either directly, or by interfering with traditional therapies.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, 25%-73% of patients using non-traditional therapies expect them to cure their cancer or to prolong their lives,1-4 and 74%-86% expect them to assist their traditional therapies.2 Despite fairly high reported levels of satisfaction and perceived benefit with non-traditional therapies,1,2 17% of patients in one study reported negative side effects,4 10%-36% of patients reported no perceived benefit or feeling worse,1,2 and around 20% reported they would not take the therapy again or recommend it to other patients.2 Even if not harmful, many non-traditional therapies are expensive,1,2 and only 64% of patients felt the non-traditional therapies provided value for money.1

Recent guidelines highlight the need for oncologists to be aware of non-traditional therapies being used or considered by their patients, and to encourage patients to discuss them.5 This would require oncologists having at least a basic understanding of these therapies. We were able to identify only two relevant studies in this area -- a quantitative survey of 106 Italian oncologists6 and a qualitative study of 18 Canadian oncologists.7 They found limited knowledge about non-traditional therapies,6,7 relatively positive attitudes towards psychological therapies,6,7 more negative attitudes towards more invasive therapies,7 negative attitudes towards non-traditional therapy practitioners6 and more positive attitudes towards the use of non-traditional therapies by palliative patients.7

As there is a lack of data in this field, we explored Australian medical and radiation oncologists' knowledge of and attitudes to non-traditional therapies, and their perceptions of the frequency with which their patients used them. Given the increased tolerance among overseas oncologists of palliative patients using non-traditional therapies,7 we assessed attitudes to palliative and curative patients separately.

We use the term "non-traditional therapies" to describe all therapies other than surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy.

Methods In May and June 1997, 273 questionnaires about 19 non-traditional therapies covering a wide range of psychosocial and physical therapies commonly discussed in the literature and media were mailed to all oncologists who practise in Australia. Non-responders received a written reminder after four weeks and a telephone reminder after six weeks.

Ethical approval for this study was granted by the University of Newcastle's Human Research Ethics Committee.

Sample identification
We identified all medical and radiation oncologists practising in Australia through the Clinical Oncological Society of Australasia (COSA) and the Royal Australasian College of Radiologists' (RACR) Faculty of Radiation Oncology. The list of all the individuals registered with the Medical and Radiation Oncology Groups of COSA in late April 1997 comprised 155 Australian-based medical oncologists and 62 radiation oncologists. As the Medical Oncology Group of Australia advised they were aware of only 165 practising Australian-based medical oncologists, we considered the COSA list comprehensive for medical oncologists. However, the RACR advised they had 123 members currently practising in Australia, and, in line with its policy of not releasing members' contact details, they agreed to mail surveys to any of their members not on the COSA list -- an additional 56 radiation oncologists. The final sample of 273 thus comprised 155 medical and 118 radiation oncologists.

The survey We designed a brief survey whereby oncologists rated, on a four-point scale ("none/never heard of it", "very little", "some" or "lots"), their own levels of knowledge about each of 19 non-traditional therapies; we provided no additional information about these therapies. Oncologists were also asked to rate each therapy they knew (also on a four-point scale: "very", "fairly", "neither" or "don't know"), according to how harmful or helpful they considered it for patients being treated palliatively and curatively. Finally, they were asked to estimate the proportion of their palliative and curative patients they believed were using, or had used, each known therapy. Copies of the survey may be obtained from the authors.

Statistical analysis
We report descriptive statistics on oncologists' knowledge and attitudes, including 95% confidence intervals around the proportion of oncologists knowing "lots" about each therapy. All analyses were conducted with the SAS statistical package;10 95% confidence intervals were calculated using Microsft Excel,11 based on the standard binomial approximation formula.12

Results Of the 273 oncologists identified, four medical and two radiation oncologists were no longer practising and two radiation oncologists received surveys through both the COSA and RACR lists, leaving 265 eligible oncologists. Completed surveys were returned by 161 (61%) -- 60 radiation oncologists, 64 medical oncologists and 37 who could not be classified because they had destroyed the identifying number that allowed us to make this differentiation.

Knowledge about non-traditional therapies
Box 1 shows that meditation, relaxation and visual imagery were the therapies that most oncologists (about a quarter) reported knowing a lot about. Approximately a fifth of the oncologists surveyed also reported knowing a lot about antioxidant therapy and microwave, or Tronado, therapy. The least-known therapies were cellular therapy, magnetotherapy and psychic surgery.

Perceptions of each therapy's potential harmfulness or helpfulness
Box 2 shows that oncologists tended to consider the psychosocial therapies helpful for patients being treated both palliatively and curatively. Acupuncture was also considered helpful, especially for palliative patients. Many therapies were considered more likely to help palliative patients and, conversely, more harmful for curative patients. Not surprisingly, the less familiar, more physical or invasive therapies dominated those considered likely to be harmful.

Perceptions of their patients' use of each therapy
Box 3 compares the median proportion of their curative and palliative patients that oncologists believed were using or had used each non-traditional therapy with levels of use reported by Australian cancer patients.1-4 The oncologists showed a consistent trend to estimate higher use among palliative patients. The oncologists' estimates were within the ranges reported by Australian cancer patients for acupuncture, antioxidants, faith healing, hypnotherapy, iridology and meditation, relaxation and visual imagery. However, the oncologists overestimated patients' use of aromatherapy, coffee enemas, herbal therapies, naturopathy, homoeopathy, magnetotherapy and shark cartilage therapy. No patient data were available to compare cellular, mistletoe, microwave and ozone therapies or psychic surgery, and estimates for diet therapy were difficult to compare because of variation in the definitions used.

Discussion As in the overseas studies,6,7 we found that oncologists identified gaps in their knowledge about many non-traditional therapies. It is interesting to note, however, that the therapies most patients reported using (meditation, relaxation and visual imagery and antioxidants) were also the therapies that most oncologists -- although still only up to a quarter -- reported knowing a lot about.

Also consistent with the overseas studies,6,7 psychosocial therapies were viewed positively, and non-traditional therapies were considered more likely to be potentially helpful to patients being treated palliatively and potentially harmful to those being treated curatively. The more positive attitudes towards psychosocial therapies may reflect oncologists' awareness of some evidence of proven benefits from these therapies.8,9

Although our respondents tended to accurately estimate their patients' use of more commonly used non-traditional therapies, they tended to overestimate patients' use of more radical therapies, especially those with higher media profiles, such as coffee enemas and shark cartilage therapy. While the oncologists' and patients' estimates come from different surveys of different populations collected at different points in time, making some degree of variation inevitable, such variation is unlikely to explain the reasonably large differences for many of the lesser-used therapies. The trend for oncologists to estimate higher use of non-traditional therapies among palliative than curative patients is consistent with Australian and international data suggesting that patients with more advanced cancers are more likely to use non-traditional therapies.2,13-15

Our study has some other limitations. Firstly, for brevity, we sought no demographic information, thus prohibiting any assessment of the respondents' representativeness of Australian oncologists. However, as we targeted all Australian oncologists, and received responses from over 60% of the population, covering the full range of responses, we are confident that our data provide the first quantitative, reasonably representative overview of Australian oncologists' knowledge of and attitudes to non-traditional therapies.

Secondly, we used self-report rather than an objective assessment of oncologists' actual knowledge about non-traditional therapies. As the oncologists are unlikely to have deliberately underestimated their knowledge levels, these estimates of how much they know should probably be interpreted as best-case scenarios. Also, we provided no definitions of "helpful" or "harmful", leaving individual oncologists to decide what constituted a harm or a help. This was done intentionally, as patients seek a range of benefits from non-traditional therapies, including physical, psychosocial and spiritual ones.

Finally, while our results represent the first quantitative data on oncologists' knowledge and attitudes in this area, they cannot be generalised to other clinicians who treat people with cancer, such as surgeons, haematologists and general practitioners.

Sceptics may question the need for oncologists to increase their knowledge about non-traditional therapies when the benefit of most remains unproven. However, without some basic knowledge of what is involved in each therapy, and of any demonstrated benefits or adverse reactions, oncologists may be unable to give adequate advice to patients. As outlined in the National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines, overly heavy-handed and dismissive attitudes are less likely to succeed in discouraging patients from using potentially harmful non-traditional therapies than more rational and considered discussions.5

Conclusions Research is needed to facilitate the production of evidence-based information summaries for oncologists in the area of non-traditional therapies, to compare oncologists' perceptions of use with their own patients' reported use of such therapies, and to establish the knowledge and attitudes of other clinicians treating cancer patients.

This research was funded by the NSW Cancer Council's Cancer Education Research Program. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Cancer Council, which had no direct role in the design and/or analyses of this study or in the decision about publication of the results. We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Clinical Oncological Society of Australasia and the Royal Australasian College of Radiologists' (RACR) Faculty of Radiation Oncology for their assistance with identifying eligible oncologists, and the oncologists who completed the surveys.

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(Received 5 Jul, accepted 5 Nov, 1999)

Authors' details NSW Cancer Council Cancer Education Research Program (CERP).
Sallie Newell, PhD Research Academic (also Conjoint Lecturer, Discipline of Behavioural Science in Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Newcastle; currently Epidemiologist (Health Promotion Evaluation, Northern Rivers Institute for Health and Research, Lismore, NSW).
Rob W Sanson-Fisher, PhD, Director (also Professor, Discipline of Behavioural Science in Medicine, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Newcastle; currently Dean of Faculty).

Reprints will not be available from the authors.
Correspondence: The Secretary, NSW Cancer Council Cancer Education Research Program, Locked Bag 10, Wallsend, NSW 2287.

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box 1
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2: Percentage of the 161 oncologists believing non-traditional therapies about which they reported at least some knowledge ("very little" or more) to be helpful or harmful
Curative patients

Palliative patients

TherapyNo. reporting some knowledge of therapy*HelpfulHarmfulHelpfulHarmful

Acupuncture16025%1% 58%1%
Antioxidants/high-dose vitamin C1605% 30%5%23%
Aromatherapy1569%2% 21%1%
Cellular therapy57029% 026%
Coffee enemas1511%71% 1%70%
Diet therapy (Gerson/macrobiotic)1422% 49%4%48%
Faith healing/spiritualism15212%24% 23%15%
Herbal therapies/naturopathy1598% 22%13%15%
Homoeopathy1504%12% 8%6%
Hypnotherapy15631%4% 46%3%
Immune-enhancing therapy1313%27% 5%22%
Iridology144 1%15%1%8%
Iscador/mistletoe therapy1032%55% 2%45%
Magnetotherapy695%8% 8%6%
Meditation/relaxation/visual imagery15969% 3%82%2%
Microwave/Tronado therapy1207%45% 7%37%
Ozone therapy961%46% 2%37%
Psychic surgery872%57% 2%56%
Shark cartilage therapy1501%23% 1%17%

*The remaining response options were "neither helpful nor harmful" and "don't know" - the balance of the oncologists with some knowledge of the therapy selected one of these options.
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3: Perceptions among the 161 oncologists of their patients' use of non-traditional therapies compared with that reported by Australian cancer patients
Oncologists' perceptions

TherapyNo. reporting some knowledge of therapyMedian curative patientsMedian palliative patients

Antioxidants/high-dose vitamin C16015%20%
Cellular therapy573%3%
Coffee enemas1513%5%
Diet therapy (Gerson/macrobiotic)*14210%10%
Faith healing/spiritualism1525%10%
Herbal therapies/naturopathy15920%25%
Immune-enhancing therapy1315%8%
Iscador/mistletoe therapy1032%3%
Meditation/relaxation/visual imagery15920%20%
Microwave/Tronado therapy1201%1%
Ozone therapy963%5%
Psychic surgery871%1%
Shark cartilage therapy1505%10%
Reported use

Therapy% Paediatric patients (n=48)4% Palliative patients (n=151)3% Medical oncology patients (n=319) 1% Medical oncology patients (n=156)2

Acupuncture- 7%3%5%
Antioxidants/high-dose vitamin C8%24%12%12%-16%
Aromatherapy- --0.5%
Cellular therapy----
Coffee enemas---1%
Diet therapy (Gerson/macrobiotic)*8%18%13%30%
(diet therapy)(special foods)(diet therapy)(changed diet)
0.5% (Gerson)
Faith healing/spiritualism6%9%7%3%
Herbal therapies/naturopathy8%3%-8%6%5%-10%
Homoeopathy2% 5%3%2%
Immune-enhancing therapy-3%4% -
Iridology- --3%
Iscador/mistletoe therapy----
Magnetotherapy--- 0.5%
Meditation/relaxtion/visual imagery4%-17%19%10%-13%12%-28%
Microwave/Tornado therapy----
Ozone therapy----
Psychic surgery----
Shark cartlilage therapy---4%

*As diet therapies included those ranging from basic dietary changes through to very restricted diets (eg, Gerson diet), the actual wording used in each of the studies is included.
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Received 29 May 2024, accepted 29 May 2024

  • Sallie Newell
  • Rob W Sanson-Fisher



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