Abstract

Most physicians presume their relationship with the patient is a crucial component when managing chronic illness, such as myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS). This assumption was validated in a convenience sample of 70 adults with MDS who participated in five focus groups throughout the United States. The primary purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the impact of MDS on patients’ quality of life (QOL). The groups were facilitated by an advanced practice nurse with clinical expertise in MDS and qualitative research experience. Given the exploratory nature of the study design, discussions proceeded in differing directions; however, core questions were asked at each session (based on Ferrell’s work exploring QOL in patients with cancer (Oncology Nursing Forum, 1996). Sessions were audio-taped and professionally transcribed. Transcripts were coded and emerging themes identified using thematic analysis methods aided by the qualitative analysis program N5 (QSR International). The sample was 93% Caucasian, 51% male, with a mean age of 69 ± 9 years; 26% lived alone. Known MDS subtype was: 19 RA, 19 RARS, 11 RAEB, 3 5q-, 2 other (16 unknown); median time since diagnosis was 26 months (3 - 276). 73% received growth factors, 61% transfusions, 19% azacitidine, 16% thalidomide, 14% iron chelation; 29% all other; many patients received multiple (often concurrent) therapies. A significant finding from the focus groups revealed a detailed depiction of the patient-physician relationship from the patient’s perspective (discussed by 46 of the 62 patients who actively participated). Patients acknowledged many barriers that interfered with the relationship. These barriers were system related (e.g., extreme time constraints for physicians, priority to others who were more ill) or treatment related (e.g., lack of cure, limited treatment options). In addition, patients identified physician attributes that adversely impacted the relationship, including seeming indifference to the patient’s concerns, displays of arrogance, limited knowledge about MDS and its treatment, and especially, lack of confidence in managing the illness. In contrast, positive physician attributes that enhanced the relationship included: providing comprehensible explanations, willingness to seek assistance or opinions from MDS experts when the physician was unsure of the best treatment approach, and displays of compassion and concern. Patients identified displaying respect and interest in them as individuals as essential elements in establishing and maintaining a therapeutic relationship. Patients reacted to a difficult patient-physician relationship in various ways. Those patients who ascribed to the view that a physician had a revered position and was not to be challenged tended to suffer in silence, and remained anxious or depressed. Other patients described a more proactive position, where they continually sought new information about the disease and managing side effects and even felt responsible to explore other treatment options. However, this approach required much work and energy, and did not consistently alleviate the patient’s anxiety. MDS is a complex disease, where advances in understanding its pathology and identifying new treatments are beginning to have an impact in routine clinical practice. Data from this study suggest that physicians need to be aware of the barriers present in the patient-physician relationship and strive to ameliorate them. In so doing, patient’s anxiety, depression, and hyper-vigilance may be diminished, and quality of life enhanced.

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