, Volume 19, Issue 7, pp 871-881

Evidence for interventions to improve psychological outcomes in people with head and neck cancer: a systematic review of the literature

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Abstract

Purpose

In addition to cancer-related distress, people with head and neck cancer (HNC) endure facial disfigurement and difficulties with eating and communication. High rates of alcohol use and socio-economic disadvantage raise concerns that patients with HNC may be less likely than others to participate in and adhere to psychological interventions. This article aims to inform future practice and research by reviewing the evidence in support of psychological interventions for this patient group.

Methods

We searched CENTRAL, Medline, Embase, PsycINFO and CINAHL in December 2009. Relevant studies were rated for internal and external validity against the criteria of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) US Preventive Services Task Force. Wherever possible, outcomes were evaluated using effect sizes to confirm statistically significant results and enable comparison between studies. Meta-analysis was planned according to criteria in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews. Levels of evidence for each intervention type were evaluated using AHRQ criteria.

Results

Nine studies met inclusion criteria. One study was rated ‘good’ for internal validity and four for external validity. Psycho-education and/or cognitive–behavioural therapy were evaluated by seven studies, and communication skills training and a support group by one study each. Significant heterogeneity precluded meta-analysis. Based on a study-by-study review, there was most support for psycho-education, with three out of five studies finding at least some effect.

Conclusions

Research to date suggests it is feasible to recruit people with HNC to psychological interventions and to evaluate their progress through repeated-outcome measures. Evidence for interventions is limited by the small number of studies, methodological problems, and poor comparability. Future interventions should target HNC patients who screen positive for clinical distress and be integrated into standard care.