From the Journals

Half of women treated for gynecologic cancers miss or skip doses of oral drugs



Oral agents are taking on an ever-greater role in the management of gynecologic cancers. However, women being treated for these cancers have less than ideal adherence to such medications, a new study has found – with just over half reporting taking them exactly as prescribed.

A woman reads the label on a pill bottle. Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

The findings reported in Obstetrics & Gynecology are consistent with reports from other populations taking oral anticancer agents, in which adherence is generally lower than with intravenous therapies.

For their research, Catherine Watson, MD, and colleagues at Duke University, Durham, N.C., recruited 100 women at their institution taking a variety of oral anticancer agents for uterine or ovarian cancer for 30 days or more (median time, 6 months). The women answered a questionnaire that measured adherence as well as health literacy, quality of life, and distress. The researchers also collected information on the subjects’ race, age, insurance type, medication burden, and medication costs.

Fourteen of the women in the study additionally underwent qualitative interviews about their experiences with oral anticancer drugs. The researchers also queried physicians and nurse practitioners about their thoughts on adherence.

Dr. Watson and colleagues reported that 54% of women self-reported perfect adherence to their medication in the previous week, while 21% had missed or skipped one dose, and 25% reported skipping or missing more than one dose.

The researchers saw no significant differences between the adherent and nonadherent groups corresponding with race, age, or other demographic or clinical characteristics, but they noted that their study was not powered to detect such associations. The small sample size and self-reported data were among this study’s limitations, Dr. Watson and colleagues acknowledged.

Interviews with patients revealed some surprising reasons for the less-than-optimal adherence, with 43% of women reporting feeling anxiety about the burden of administering medication at home. While patients acknowledged the convenience of oral regimens, some also expressed a wish for more physician contact and support. Some women who were nonadherent said they perceived the efficacy of oral agents to be less than intravenous therapies.

Physicians and nurse practitioners interviewed by the researchers “tended to assume that their patients were adherent to oral anticancer therapy because of the therapy’s importance, and many did not routinely ask their patients about adherence,” Dr. Watson and colleagues wrote.

Emma Rossi, MD, a gynecologic oncologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, commented in an interview that the study highlighted “the importance of not generalizing our perception of patients. As providers we have to spend the time asking patients where they’re at and how they’re thinking about taking an oral medication, with special attention to their fears, their expectations, and their concerns. We should be touching base with them not just before starting drugs, but during the course of treatment.”

Dr. Rossi stressed that compliance in real-life settings is likely to be different from that seen in clinical trials of oral anticancer drugs. “It’s important to recognize that real-world efficacy of treatments may be different from trial efficacy. We see these differences a lot in medicine where studies show a large magnitude of effect that doesn’t play out in real life practice – because of factors like this.”

Some 57% of the women in the study were taking their medications as maintenance, while the rest were taking the medications as active treatment. This too might have an effect on adherence, she said, with the active-treatment group potentially more motivated to maintain perfect adherence.

“You see in the interviews that doctors assume patients would be compliant because of the seriousness of the disease,” Dr. Rossi said. “But some patients said they perceived oral drugs as less strong or effective. If a patient is cancer free on a scan and doesn’t have measurable disease, prescribing an oral medication may be sending the subliminal message that it’s not as important.”

Physicians “may need to take the extra steps to individualize our counseling of patients – especially with therapies that they’re responsible for administering,” Dr. Rossi continued. “As this study shows, every patient sees treatment through her own individual lens. We really need to meet them where they’re at to make them comfortable with their treatment and optimize compliance.”

Dr. Watson and colleagues’ study was supported by their institution. One coauthor reported financial ties with drug manufacturers in the form of grant and clinical trial support and honoraria. Another coauthor is the member of various boards and steering committees, which are uncompensated. Dr. Rossi reported no financial conflicts of interest.

SOURCE: Watson C et al. Obstet Gynecol. 2020. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000004170.

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