A targeted needs assessment to improve referral patterns for palliative radiation therapy
Radiation therapy (RT) can effectively palliate a variety of symptoms in patients with metastatic cancer, using relatively low doses that infrequently cause major side effects. However, palliative radiation is often underutilized and sub-optimally implemented. In this study, we surveyed the Society of Palliative Radiation Oncology (SPRO) membership to identify barriers to appropriate referral for palliative RT that they encounter in their practice, and identify specific groups of physicians who radiation oncologists believed would benefit most from further education on when to refer patients. A total of 28 radiation oncologists responded to the survey with a response rate of 20.5%. On average, participants felt that referrals for palliative RT were inappropriately delayed 46.5% [standard deviation (STD) 20.2%] of the time. The most common barrier to referral for medical oncologists was thought to be potential interference with systemic therapy (33%); for primary care physicians and surgeons it was a lack of knowledge about the benefit (42%), and for palliative care physicians it was concern for patient convenience (25%). For brain metastases and spinal cord compression radiation oncology was felt to be part of the initial referral sequence more than 50% of the time, but less so for thoracic airway obstruction/bleeding (38%), esophageal obstruction (16%), or urinary obstruction/bleeding (8%), where another subspecialist was more often consulted first. Primary care, geriatric medicine, and emergency medicine were considered among the least knowledgeable specialties about palliative radiation. These hypothesis-generating findings can guide approaches to improve referral patterns for this important aspect of supportive care.