Telephone interventions for symptom management in adults with cancer

Emma Ream, Amanda Euesden Hughes, Anna Cox, Katy Skarparis, Alison Richardson, Vibe Pedersen, Theresa Wiseman, Angus Forbes, Andrew Bryant

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

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People with cancer experience a variety of symptoms as a result of their disease and the therapies involved in its management. Inadequate symptom management has implications for patient outcomes including functioning, psychological well‐being, and quality of life (QoL). Attempts to reduce the incidence and severity of cancer symptoms have involved the development and testing of psycho‐educational interventions to enhance patients' symptom self‐management. With the trend for care to be provided nearer patients' homes, telephone‐delivered psycho‐educational interventions have evolved to provide support for the management of a range of cancer symptoms. Early indications suggest that these can reduce symptom severity and distress through enhanced symptom self‐management.

To assess the effectiveness of telephone‐delivered interventions for reducing symptoms associated with cancer and its treatment. To determine which symptoms are most responsive to telephone interventions. To determine whether certain configurations (e.g. with/without additional support such as face‐to‐face, printed or electronic resources) and duration/frequency of intervention calls mediate observed cancer symptom outcome effects.

Search methods
We searched the following databases: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 2019, Issue 1); MEDLINE via OVID (1946 to January 2019); Embase via OVID (1980 to January 2019); (CINAHL) via Athens (1982 to January 2019); British Nursing Index (1984 to January 2019); and PsycINFO (1989 to January 2019). We searched conference proceedings to identify published abstracts, as well as SIGLE and trial registers for unpublished studies. We searched the reference lists of all included articles for additional relevant studies. Finally, we handsearched the following journals: Cancer, Journal of Clinical Oncology, Psycho‐oncology, Cancer Practice, Cancer Nursing, Oncology Nursing Forum, Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, and Palliative Medicine. We restricted our search to publications published in English.

Selection criteria
We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi‐RCTs that compared one or more telephone interventions with one other, or with other types of interventions (e.g. a face‐to‐face intervention) and/or usual care, with the stated aim of addressing any physical or psychological symptoms of cancer and its treatment, which recruited adults (over 18 years) with a clinical diagnosis of cancer, regardless of tumour type, stage of cancer, type of treatment, and time of recruitment (e.g. before, during, or after treatment).

Data collection and analysis
We used Cochrane methods for trial selection, data extraction and analysis. When possible, anxiety, depressive symptoms, fatigue, emotional distress, pain, uncertainty, sexually‐related and lung cancer symptoms as well as secondary outcomes are reported as standardised mean differences (SMDs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs), and we presented a descriptive synthesis of study findings. We reported on findings according to symptoms addressed and intervention types (e.g. telephone only, telephone combined with other elements). As many studies included small samples, and because baseline scores for study outcomes often varied for intervention and control groups, we used change scores and associated standard deviations. The certainty of the evidence for each outcome was interpreted using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) approach.

Main results
Thirty‐two studies were eligible for inclusion; most had moderate risk of bias,often related to blinding. Collectively, researchers recruited 6250 people and studied interventions in people with a variety of cancer types and across the disease trajectory, although many participants had breast cancer or early‐stage cancer and/or were starting treatment. Studies measured symptoms of anxiety, depression, emotional distress, uncertainty, fatigue, and pain, as well as sexually‐related symptoms and general symptom intensity and/or distress.

Interventions were primarily delivered by nurses (n = 24), most of whom (n = 16) had a background in oncology, research, or psychiatry. Ten interventions were delivered solely by telephone; the rest combined telephone with additional elements (i.e. face‐to‐face consultations and digital/online/printed resources). The number of calls delivered ranged from 1 to 18; most interventions provided three or four calls.

Twenty‐one studies provided evidence on effectiveness of telephone‐delivered interventions and the majority appeared to reduce symptoms of depression compared to control. Nine studies contributed quantitative change scores (CSs) and associated standard deviation results (or these could be calculated). Likewise, many telephone interventions appeared effective when compared to control in reducing anxiety (16 studies; 5 contributed quantitative CS results); fatigue (9 studies; 6 contributed to quantitative CS results); and emotional distress (7 studies; 5 contributed quantitative CS results). Due to significant clinical heterogeneity with regards to interventions introduced, study participants recruited, and outcomes measured, meta‐analysis was not conducted.

For other symptoms (uncertainty, pain, sexually‐related symptoms, dyspnoea, and general symptom experience), evidence was limited; similarly meta‐analysis was not possible, and results from individual studies were largely conflicting, making conclusions about their management through telephone‐delivered interventions difficult to draw. Heterogeneity was considerable across all trials for all outcomes.

Overall, the certainty of evidence was very low for all outcomes in the review. Outcomes were all downgraded due to concerns about overall risk of bias profiles being frequently unclear, uncertainty in effect estimates and due to some inconsistencies in results and general heterogeneity.

Unsubstantiated evidence suggests that telephone interventions in some capacity may have a place in symptom management for adults with cancer. However, in the absence of reliable and homogeneous evidence, caution is needed in interpreting the narrative synthesis. Further, there were no clear patterns across studies regarding which forms of interventions (telephone alone versus augmented with other elements) are most effective. It is impossible to conclude with any certainty which forms of telephone intervention are most effective in managing the range of cancer‐related symptoms that people with cancer experience.

Authors' conclusions
Telephone interventions provide a convenient way of supporting self‐management of cancer‐related symptoms for adults with cancer. These interventions are becoming more important with the shift of care closer to patients' homes, the need for resource/cost containment, and the potential for voluntary sector providers to deliver healthcare interventions. Some evidence supports the use of telephone‐delivered interventions for symptom management for adults with cancer; most evidence relates to four commonly experienced symptoms ‐ depression, anxiety, emotional distress, and fatigue. Some telephone‐delivered interventions were augmented by combining them with face‐to‐face meetings and provision of printed or digital materials. Review authors were unable to determine whether telephone alone or in combination with other elements provides optimal reduction in symptoms; it appears most likely that this will vary by symptom. It is noteworthy that, despite the potential for telephone interventions to deliver cost savings, none of the studies reviewed included any form of health economic evaluation.

Further robust and adequately reported trials are needed across all cancer‐related symptoms, as the certainty of evidence generated in studies within this review was very low, and reporting was of variable quality. Researchers must strive to reduce variability between studies in the future. Studies in this review are characterised by clinical and methodological diversity; the level of this diversity hindered comparison across studies. At the very least, efforts should be made to standardise outcome measures. Finally, studies were compromised by inclusion of small samples, inadequate concealment of group allocation, lack of observer blinding, and short length of follow‐up. Consequently, conclusions related to symptoms most amenable to management by telephone‐delivered interventions are tentative.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD007568
JournalCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jun 2020


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