What if the first conversation that cancer patients have with their health care professionals affects their later quality of life or even their chances of survival? Jeffrey Robinson, associate professor of communication at Portland State University, has received a $340,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute to investigate the initial communication between surgeons and their patients.
Surgeons are often the first in a string of healthcare specialists that breast-cancer patients interact with. According to Robinson, initial conversations between surgeons and patients lay the groundwork for patients' psycho-social health that they then take into the rest of their treatment and recovery. The ultimate goal of the research is to educate both surgeons and patients about concrete communication strategies that positively affect patients' health and morale. Robinson points out that patients who feel empowered in their initial interactions may establish communication patterns that benefit them much farther down the road.
The two-year grant will examine approximately 150 visits between newly diagnosed female breast-cancer patients and surgeons in the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area. "What we're looking for," said Robinson, "is do they [patients] ask questions? Do they assert their treatment preferences? Do surgeons solicit questions? Do surgeons encourage patients to share their hopes and fears?" Surveys administered right before and after visits will measure changes in variables such as uncertainty, anxiety, hopelessness, and fighting spirit. Changes will be linked to specific communication behaviors during visits, which will be videotaped.
This October marked the 25th annual National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an event devoted to looking at cancer treatment in new ways. "Research on cancer communication has typically focused on survivorship and the later stages of cancer treatment or recovery," said Robinson, "but I wanted to go back to the beginning of the process, because though this is just one slice, it's an early slice that hasn't been examined before."