AMSTERDAM (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – A telephone-based system to monitor chemotherapy-induced symptoms when patients are home and facilitate interventions as needed led to significant cuts in symptom burden in a single-center, randomized trial with 152 breast cancer patients.

“Symptom care at home gives patients symptom care when and where they need it,” Kathi H. Mooney, Ph.D. , said at the European Breast Cancer Conference. “Rarely is symptom monitoring extended to when patients are home, but that is when symptoms are most problematic for patients.”

The 30-day program was linked with significant cuts in the number of days with any of seven chemotherapy-induced symptoms. In addition, overall days with any severe symptom fell by 48% (P = .006) and the number of days with any moderate symptoms fell by 38% (P = .011), reported Dr. Mooney, professor of nursing at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

She and her associates designed a telephone-based system to address the usual reticence that chemotherapy patients have to report their symptoms. Prior study results had documented that patients with moderate or severe symptoms initiated calls for about 5% of episodes, even when explicitly told to report symptoms. This led the Utah researchers to develop an automated, interactive system that phoned patients daily.

The enrolled patients spanned the full spectrum of breast cancer stages; the average age was 53 years. All patients received a daily, automated call that prompted them to rate each of 11 chemotherapy symptoms on a scale of 0-10.

The calls also provided automated, self-management coaching for problematic symptoms. The investigational Symptom Care at Home intervention involved a nurse practitioner getting back to patients who reported poorly-controlled symptoms. These follow-up calls averaged just under 7 minutes in length, and on average each patient received 11 calls during the 30 days of the intervention.

After 30 days, the 83 patients in the Symptom Care at Home program had statistically-significant reductions in days with moderate or worse episodes for 7 of the 11 symptoms tallied: numbness or tingling, anxiety, nausea, pain, depressed mood, sore mouth, and fatigue. The most robust effects were a 72% drop in days with moderate or worse numbness or tingling, a 66% reduction in anxiety days, and a 61% cut in nausea days.

“I like the intervention used in this study. I think it shows what can happen when you collect symptom information in a way that is patient friendly,” said Dr. Robert Mansel , professor at the Institute of Cancer & Genetics at Cardiff University, South Wales. “I was delighted to see that this intervention really made a difference. The findings show that patients often suffer a lot more from treatment than they are usually prepared to tell us.”

In addition to the efficacy of this intervention, “patients told us that they liked having someone to talk with about their symptoms,” Dr. Mooney said in an interview. “Patients are concerned about their symptoms.”

One aspect of the Symptom Care at Home program that has not yet been analyzed is its cost efficacy. The University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute, where the program was developed, is awaiting results from a cost-benefit analysis before deciding whether to make the telephone system part of routine practice, she said.

Dr. Mooney and Dr. Mansel reported having no financial disclosures.

On Twitter @mitchelzoler