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When Is it Justified to Treat Symptoms? Measuring Symptom Burden

When Is it Justified to Treat Symptoms? Measuring Symptom Burden

ABSTRACT: Symptom burden is certainly not a new concept in the literature on disease and treatment, but recent developments in our understanding of how to measure symptoms and their impact make it possible to cast symptom burden as a reasonable summary measure of both disease- and treatment-outcome status. We discuss the use of symptom burden as an alternative to quality-of-life measures or as a supplement to these measures. We examine the potential responsiveness and relative ease of interpretation of a symptom-burden outcome. We review studies of the prevalence and negative impact of multiple symptoms on health outcomes among cancer patients. By way of example, we illustrate the potential utility of a measure of symptom burden in the epidemiologic studies of multiple symptoms as well as an outcome measure in clinical studies. Finally, we discuss potential research challenges and offer recommendations on future research directions. [ONCOLOGY 16(Suppl 10):64-70, 2002]

It is now common for
and patients to face choices
among treatments that are highly similar in efficacy and even in prolonging
survival. As a result, differences in treatment toxicity and in the patient’s
status during the survival period have become critical variables in making
treatment choices and in developing new therapies. Paramount in evaluating both
toxicity and quality of survival time is the inclusion of patient-reported
outcomes as important measures of treatment differences. These outcomes can take
a variety of forms, including measures of the differences in symptom severity,
perception of daily functioning, feelings of well-being, global impressions of
the impact of treatment on daily life, satisfaction with treatment, and
health-related quality of life (QOL).

Because these patient-outcome variables are becoming more
important relative to "hard" end points such as survival or time to
recurrence, decisions about which patient-outcome measures to use and how to
interpret them for patients, health-care professionals, and policy makers will
need to be made. Almost all of these outcome measures will ultimately depend on
the patient’s perception of his or her status, before and after becoming ill
and receiving treatment. The patient’s representation of this change forms the
basis for making practical judgments about how treatment should progress.

As treatments that depend on such subjective outcomes emerge,
how such treatments will be "valued" becomes a major issue. Will
patients, given subjective outcome information about the treatments, opt to
pursue them? Will physicians use this outcome information to recommend and
prescribe treatments? When such treatments are being developed, will approval
agencies decide they are beneficial? Will agencies (public and private health
funders) decide that such treatments are worth paying for?

Thus, when a treatment offers little or no survival
advantage, yet seems to improve how patients feel, judgments about the worth of
the treatment will be made by several audiences who will ultimately determine
whether the treatment is effective, should be approved, and will be used. Here
we discuss the concept of symptom burden as a way to portray patient status, and
offer a definition of symptom burden as an outcome measure.

Symptom Burden:
An Operational Definition

We can trace the origin of the word "symptom" from
the Greek "symptoma," which means "anything that has befallen
one."[1] A more useful definition, however, is provided by Webster,[2] and
states that symptom "is the subjective evidence of disease or physical
disturbance observed by a patient." Implicit in this definition is the
subjective and negative nature of symptoms. Symptoms are an observation by the
patient; ie, the person experiencing the evidence of disease or physical
disturbance. Symptoms can be the subjective expression of the disease itself, or
the products of disease treatment, the latter often referred to as side effects
or toxicities. Symptom burden can be thought of as the subjective counterpart of
summary expressions of disease such as tumor burden.

Patients typically experience multiple concurrent symptoms,
due either to the disease or its treatment. We propose that a measure of symptom
burden be a summative indicator of

  • The severity
    of the symptoms that are most associated with a disease or treatment
  • A summary of
    the patient’s perception of the impact of these symptoms on daily living,
    including activity, mood, ability to work, and ability to relate to others.

Symptom Burden and Quality of Life

Most clinical trials currently include one or more measures
of quality of life. In 1996, the American Society of Clinical Oncology stated
that quality of life was an end point secondary only to survival.[3] The US Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended that quality of life is a more
important measure of treatment efficacy than most other traditional end points
for drugs that do not have an impact on survival.[4]

Clearly, improving a patient’s quality of life is a goal of
all medical treatment. Based on the World Health Organization definition of
health,[5] quality of life includes psychological and social functioning as well
as physical functioning, and incorporates positive aspects of well-being as well
as negative aspects of disease and infirmity. Among health researchers, a common
consensus is that quality of life is a multidimensional construct composed of at
least four dimensions:

  • Physical
    function (ie, daily activities, self-care, etc)
  • Psychological
    function (ie, emotional/mental status, mood)
  • Social
    function (ie, social interactions, family dynamics), and
  • Disease/treatment
    symptoms (ie, pain, nausea, fatigue).

The comprehensive nature of quality of life, however, is both
one of its attractions and its difficulties as an outcome measure. Quality of
life is best viewed as a subjective evaluation of life as a whole.[6] In this
section, we present the potential advantages of symptom-burden measure,
highlighting its potential utility as a supplement to QOL measures.

Clinical Condition
and Quality of Life

QOL measures may be relatively insensitive to obvious changes
in clinical condition. As a multidimensional construct, a measure of quality of
life may include aspects that go beyond the impact of cancer or its treatment.
Among bone marrow transplant patients, studies have shown patients rating their
quality of life as above average despite the persistence of significant physical
and psychological symptoms. For example, Bush and colleagues[7] conducted a
descriptive study of quality of life, psychological distress, demands of
long-term recovery, and health perceptions of 125 bone marrow transplant
survivors. They were no different from individuals sampled from the general
population with regard to their perceived current health and health outlook.
However, 10 or more years posttransplantation, long-term survivors continued to
experience a moderate incidence of lingering complications and demands,
including emotional and sexual dysfunction, fatigue, eye problems, sleep
disturbance, general pain, and cognitive dysfunction.

Molassiotis et al[8] found that long-term autologous bone
marrow transplant survivors rated their quality of life as good to excellent,
although 20% reported symptoms of anxiety, 10% had signs of clinical depression,
and 20% had not returned to full-time employment. McQuellon et al[9] found that
quality of life and mood improved slightly in patients following autologous bone
marrow transplant, despite the fact that 30% had problems with sexuality,
fatigue, and depressive symptoms.

These studies show that patients may report their quality of
life as improved or unchanged, despite changes or deterioration in health. QOL
measures in such situations are liable to yield discrepant results compared with
the proposed symptom- burden measure. Further, results indicating that patients’
quality of life did not deteriorate may also imply that intervention need not be
undertaken, possibly masking the issue of specific residual symptoms that
require intervention.

Symptom-Burden Measures

Symptom burden is correlated with quality of life, and many
QOL measures (eg, European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer [EORTC],
Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy [FACT]) have components that measure
symptoms. Symptom severity is a strong predictor of scores on QOL measures[10]
suggesting the potential of symptom- burden measures as an immediate indicator
of deteriorating quality of life. For example, Bull and colleagues[11] studied
quality of life among women with recurrent breast cancer. Results showed that
self-reported physical symptoms were a strong predictor of postrecurrence
ratings of overall quality of life. In a study of 206 adult patients with
multiple myeloma, Poulos and colleagues[12] looked at the relationship between
pain and mood disturbance, and the factors that influence quality of life. They
found that pain and mood disturbance scores were significant predictors of
quality of life in this group of patients.

Symptom-burden measures may be more informative about true
differences in patient status when comparing treatments. A randomized clinical
trial compared the quality of life of patients treated with single-agent
paclitaxel vs doxorubicin as first-line therapy for advanced breast cancer.[13]
Quality of life was measured using the EORTC Quality of Life Questionnaire (QLQ)-C30
and the Rotterdam Symptom Checklist. Results showed that no statistically
significant differences were observed in either the functional scales or the
global QOL scores during the third cycle of chemotherapy. However,
cross-sectional analyses of data at the end of cycle 3 showed that patients in
the doxorubicin arm had significantly more nausea/vomiting and loss of appetite
than those in the paclitaxel arm. The authors concluded that there is a trend
toward greater burden of disease and treatment and lower general health status
associated with doxorubicin therapy.

When using QOL measures, components assessing symptom burden
are more responsive indicators of changes in patient status. For example, a 1985
randomized phase III study compared patients with low-grade cerebral glioma who
received high-dose (59.4 Gy in 6.5 weeks) vs low-dose (45 Gy in 5 weeks)
radiotherapy with conventional techniques.[14] A QOL questionnaire, consisting
of 47 items that assessed a range of physical, social, psychological, and
symptom domains, was included in the trial to measure the impact of treatment
over time. No difference in survival was observed between the two treatment

The authors also report that, in general, the results suggest
no major differences in quality of life between the two treatment arms. However,
patients who received high-dose radiotherapy reported significantly more
fatigue/malaise and insomnia immediately after radiotherapy, and poorer
emotional functioning at 7 to 15 months postrandomization. For the remaining QOL
domains, no statistically significant differences between the two treatment arms
were found. The authors concluded that conventional radiation therapy for
low-grade cerebral glioma using an administration schedule of 45 Gy over 5 weeks
is at least as good as prolonged treatment in terms of clinical efficacy,
survival, and quality of life.


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