Cancer patients often forget details of doctor visit

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Many newly diagnosed cancer patients, no matter what their age, have trouble absorbing all the information their doctors give them, a new study shows.

The findings, which appear in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, refute the notion that patients’ ability to remember medical information is simply a matter of age.

Researchers found that among 260 newly diagnosed cancer patients seeing an oncologist for the first time, many had difficulty remembering the information the doctor gave them. And age was not a major factor.

On average, the study found that patients younger than 65 remembered half of the details their doctor discussed with them, while older patients remembered 48 percent.

An age-related difference only became apparent when oncologists gave large amounts of information during the visit; when doctors talked more extensively about the cancer, its prognosis and possible treatments. Under these circumstances, older patients tended to remember less than younger ones did.

However, many doctors seemed to anticipate this, often giving less information to elderly patients, according to the researchers, led by Jesse Jansen of the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research.

On other hand, a key factor that did affect patients’ memories was their prognosis. Regardless of age, patients with a poorer chance of living for more than weeks to months had more difficulty remembering the details their doctor gave them.

The reasons are not clear from this study, but the shock and emotion of hearing bad news could be one, according to Jansen’s team. Some patients might have been in denial, and subconsciously blocking out what the doctor was saying.

“Communicating prognosis requires careful tailoring to individual patient’s preferences for more or less information and balancing the needs for clear information while maintaining hope,” the researchers write.

They add that there are ways to help cancer patients retain information. Doctors can, for instance, prevent information overload by sticking with the most important, personally relevant details; give patients audio recordings of the consultation; and repeat the most vital information during the first visit and at subsequent visits.

SOURCE: Journal of Clinical Oncology, online October 20, 2008.

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