Men Less Likely to Prefer Palliative Care Treatment at End of Life

July 10, 2018

A small study has found that men with cancer were less likely than women to prefer palliative care if informed that continued treatment would not be helpful.

A small study has found that men with cancer were less likely than women to prefer palliative care if informed that continued treatment would not be helpful.

“These findings, which could partially account for the observed gender disparities in end of life care, underscore the need for future interventions to promote palliative care services among men,” Fahad Saeed, MD, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

Prior research had shown that men and those with low educational attainment are more likely to still be receiving “curative” treatments weeks prior to death and are less likely to undergo palliative care or hospice. With this study, Saeed and colleagues hypothesized that these two groups would be less favorably disposed toward palliative care.

To test this hypothesis, they used data from 383 patients that were gathered in the Values and Options in Cancer Care (VOICE) study. In this study, patients were asked about their preferences for palliative care if they had been informed by their oncologist that further treatment would not be helpful. Palliative care was explained to the patients as care intended to provide comfort and improve the quality of life but not to cure.

Included patients ranged in age from 22 to 90 years, and 55.1% were women. The majority of the patients had also attended college.

Almost 80% of patients reported that they definitely (45.2%) or possibly (33.9%) would desire palliative care if informed that further treatment would not be helpful.

Women were about three times more likely to prefer palliative care compared with men (odds ratio [OR] = 3.07; 95% CI, 1.80–5.23). These odds decreased slightly in sensitivity analyses that accounted for additional covariates and ordinal regression.

“These gender differences may be explained by gender differences in role socialization,” the researchers wrote. “Men and women adopt beliefs about gender roles that reflect prevailing social norms. These beliefs guide decisions about socially acceptable and unacceptable attitudes such as being stoic, fearless, less expressive of symptoms, and invulnerable.”

“If there is a ‘war’ on cancer, and treatments and hopes for cures are portrayed as ‘fights’ in media, then societal beliefs may push men, in particular, to fight the disease over receiving palliative care,” they continued.

In contrast, the data did not support a greater preference for palliative care among those with more education. Patients with a high school education or less and those with a college education had comparable preferences for palliative care.

“It is not very likely, therefore, that education disparities in end-of-life care can be explained by education differences in preferences for palliative care,” the researchers wrote.

In addition, the study showed that older adults were less likely than younger ones to prefer palliative treatment (OR = 0.54; 95% CI, 0.31–0.94). To explain this, the researchers suggested that older patients may have a lack of knowledge about palliative care.

“In a survey of patients across the adult age range, more than three-quarters of the sample had never heard of palliative care,” Saeed et al said.