Many health care professionals lack awareness of nutritional guidelines for supporting cancer patients, the largest national survey of its kind has found.
The survey of 610 health care professionals working with cancer patients found that only 39% were aware of nutritional guidelines and just 20% felt completely confident in providing nutritional advice, despite 94% of respondents stating that they discuss nutrition with their patients.
Nutrition plays an important role in wellbeing, response to therapy and secondary recurrence of cancer, and people living with and beyond cancer often experience nutrition-related issues, which includes the risk of malnutrition.
Diagnosis of cancer can also be an important ‘teachable moment’ to change undesirable diet-related behaviours, adopt risk-reducing strategies and manage symptoms.
International guidelines recommend that cancer patients receive tailored nutrition advice from trained health care professionals.
However, the UK national survey, produced by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Cancer and Nutrition Collaboration, found that – while health care professionals provide information on nutrition – awareness of guidelines and confidence in providing nutritional advice were variable.
Health care professionals who had received training had a greater awareness of guidelines and were more likely to report complete confidence in providing nutritional advice.
Among those that responded, only 21% of oncology nurses and 15% of doctors had received nutrition training.
First author and Professor of Nutrition at Bournemouth University Jane Murphy said: ‘Appropriate nutrition is a key factor to support wellbeing for people living with and beyond cancer, affecting treatment and development of secondary cancers. Thus, it is crucial that people receive robust evidence informed advice from health care professionals.
“Our research showed many professionals provide information but many are not confident and lack an awareness of guidelines. This points to the need for high quality education and training for healthcare professionals that is accessible and flexible.”
Professor Emeritus Sam Ahmedzai, chair of the NIHR Cancer & Nutrition Collaboration, said: “The UK has world-class cancer services, but we know supportive care for cancer patients at all stages of their illness could still be improved. This unique research conducted by Professor Murphy and her team shows how much more progress is needed on educating cancer doctors and nurses specifically on providing good nutritional care. The Collaboration continues to develop new research to fill this gap.”
Melissa Mogor, Collaboration member and World Cancer Research Fund’s (WCRF) Public Health Adviser, said: “We know that diet and nutrition impact not just cancer prevention, but also survival and quality of life for people living with and beyond cancer. These findings highlight how necessary it is that health professionals are able to access training and support in order to provide nutritional advice to cancer patients.
"Providing this support is a key focus of our work at WCRF, and we have been responsive to health professionals’ needs by moving our workshops and webinars online in the face of COVID-19.”
The research has been published open access in Supportive Care in Cancer and the full research paper is available here