Alcohol use may complicate cancer treatment, increase the risk of harmful side effects from medication and worsen outcomes for certain types of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. In an ongoing clinical trial, a collaboration between Polaris Health Directions, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Cooper University Hospital, 65 percent of cancer patients reported consuming alcohol ranging from “less than monthly” to daily. Of the 394 patients enrolled to date, 69 (17.5%) reported having four or more drinks on one occasion with some frequency.
The Polaris Oncology Distress Management System screens for and monitors distress among cancer patients. It includes two simple questions on the frequency and amount of alcohol use. The system’s individualized patient report provide an effective mechanism for addressing the potential risks alcohol may pose, and may have a positive impact on cancer patients’ overall clinical outcomes.
Studies on screening and brief interventions in health care settings for alcohol misuse show a positive effect, including improved treatment adherence and clinical response among patients with chronic diseases, and a strong potential for decreasing health care costs. This preventive measure has qualified for federal reimbursement by Medicaid, Medicare and the Federal Employee Health Benefits Plan, and is strongly recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and accreditation organizations such as the Joint Commission.
Patients who indicate any alcohol use during the Polaris Oncology assessment are provided with tailored advice in their feedback report. For example, the report may suggest to patients to talk to their oncologist about whether or not drinking alcohol will increase their risk of cancer or indicate whether their drinking places them at risk for poor outcomes. The report also includes the healthy drinking recommendations from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Polaris Oncology, developed with funding from the National Institutes of Health and in collaboration with MD Anderson, Cooper Cancer Institute and the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is an online psychosocial assessment and referral system that has been normed for a cancer patient population. It supports health care professionals by screening and monitoring for depression, anxiety and other mental health symptomology; risky drinking and smoking; cancer-related physical symptoms and side effects; and adherence to the medical regimen and lifestyle change recommendations.
Preliminary data from the current clinical trial suggest Polaris Oncology holds promise for easily assessing and informing oncologist if their patients are drinking above recommended levels or have other emotional and physical symptoms that might need further attention, treatment, or referral to specialty care. Complete data will be available at the conclusion of the trial in late 2012.
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The project described was supported by Award Number 5R42MH78432-4 from the National Institute for Mental Health. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute for Mental Health or the National Institutes of Health.