Clinical Insights

The scope of under- and overtreatment in older adults with cancer


Because of physiological changes with aging and differences in cancer biology, caring for older adults (OAs) with cancer requires careful assessment and planning.

Clark Dumontier, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and colleagues sought to define the meaning of the terms “undertreatment” and “overtreatment” for OAs with cancer in a scoping literature review published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Though OAs are typically defined as adults aged 65 years and older, in this review, the authors defined OAs as patients aged 60 years and older.

The authors theorized that a scoping review of papers about this patient population could provide clues about limitations in the oncology literature and guidance about patient management and future research. Despite comprising the majority of cancer patients, OAs are underrepresented in clinical trials.

About scoping reviews

Scoping reviews are used to identify existing evidence in a field, clarify concepts or definitions in the literature, survey how research on a topic is conducted, and identify knowledge gaps. In addition, scoping reviews summarize available evidence without answering a discrete research question.

Industry standards for scoping reviews have been established by the Johanna Briggs Institute and Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses extension for scoping reviews. According to these standards, scoping reviews should:

  • Establish eligibility criteria with a rationale for each criterion clearly explained
  • Search multiple databases in multiple languages
  • Include “gray literature,” defined as studies that are unpublished or difficult to locate
  • Have several independent reviewers screen titles and abstracts
  • Ask multiple independent reviewers to review full text articles
  • Present results with charts or diagrams that align with the review’s objective
  • Graphically depict the decision process for including/excluding sources
  • Identify implications for further research.

In their review, Dr. DuMontier and colleagues fulfilled many of the aforementioned criteria. The team searched three English-language databases for titles and abstracts that included the terms undertreatment and/or overtreatment, and were related to OAs with cancer, inclusive of all types of articles, cancer types, and treatments.

Definitions of undertreatment and overtreatment were extracted, and categories underlying these definitions were derived. Within a random subset of articles, two coauthors independently determined final categories of definitions and independently assigned those categories.

Findings and implications

To define OA, Dr. DuMontier and colleagues used a cutoff of 60 years or older. Articles mentioning undertreatment (n = 236), overtreatment (n = 71), or both (n = 51) met criteria for inclusion (n = 256), but only 14 articles (5.5%) explicitly provided formal definitions.

For most of the reviewed articles, the authors judged definitions from the surrounding context. In a random subset of 50 articles, there was a high level of agreement (87.1%; κ = 0.81) between two coauthors in independently assigning categories of definitions.

Undertreatment was applied to therapy that was less than recommended (148 articles; 62.7%) or less than recommended with worse outcomes (88 articles; 37.3%).

Overtreatment most commonly denoted intensive treatment of an OA in whom harms outweighed the benefits of treatment (38 articles; 53.5%) or intensive treatment of a cancer not expected to affect the OA during the patient’s remaining life (33 articles; 46.5%).

Overall, the authors found that undertreatment and overtreatment of OAs with cancer are imprecisely defined concepts. Formal geriatric assessment was recommended in just over half of articles, and only 26.2% recommended formal assessments of age-related vulnerabilities for management. The authors proposed definitions that accounted for both oncologic factors and geriatric domains.


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