Online communications aid new breast cancer patients, but usage gaps persist

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Women newly diagnosed with breast cancer feel more satisfied with their care decisions when they use online communications to help plot their path forward. However, even computer "power users" within this subgroup make little use of dynamic options like web-based support groups and social media during the early decision-making process.

Most, it seems, prefer to stick with email and texting.

That’s according to a survey of several thousand patients published online in JAMA Oncology.

Lauren P. Wallner, PhD, MPH, of the University of Michigan and colleagues reviewed questionnaires on treatment experiences sent by the iCanCare study to 3,631 women aged 20 to 79 years with newly diagnosed breast cancer (stages I-III).

The surveys went out at a mean of six months after diagnosis and elicited a 71 percent response rate (2,578 respondents).

Wallner and team narrowed the study cohort to 2,460 patients, who provided complete information regarding their use of online communication as well as full appraisals of their experiences with decision satisfaction and deliberation.

They found that, overall, 41.2 percent (n = 1,002) of the women reported some or frequent use of online communication, most commonly for email or texting (34.7 percent).

Use of social media and web-based support groups trailed at 12.3 percent and 11.9 percent, respectively.

The mean age at survey return was 61.9 years, and 59.3 percent of the cohort were white.

Black, Latina, Asian and other/unknown followed at, respectively, 16.3 percent, 13.6 percent, 8.3 percent and 2.4 percent.

Some 1,725 of the participants (72.9 percent) had at least some college education, and, among younger women, there was a significant association between more education and some or frequent online communication use.  

Compared with “never users,” women who frequently used online communications appraised their decision making more positively, the authors report.

These “power users” were also more likely to report a more deliberative decision and were also more likely to report high levels of satisfaction with the decision-making process.

“The presence of variation across age, race and education reinforces that barriers exist to incorporating these modalities broadly across patients with cancer,” Wallner et al. write in their discussion.

They call for additional research to uncover ways online communications might be used to improve the patient experience of cancer care, which invariably includes imaging as a key component.