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Support Care Cancer. 2017 Oct;25(10):3235-3242. doi: 10.1007/s00520-017-3734-4. Epub 2017 May 9.

What advanced cancer patients with limited treatment options know about clinical research: a qualitative study.

Author information

University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA.
Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, 3333 California Street, San Francisco, CA, 94118, USA.
San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA, USA.
The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.
University of California, San Francisco, CA, USA.
Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies, 3333 California Street, San Francisco, CA, 94118, USA.



Discussions between oncologists and advanced cancer patients (ACPs) may touch on the complex issue of clinical trial participation. Numerous initiatives have sought to improve the quality of these potentially difficult conversations. However, we have limited data about what ACPs know about clinical research as they enter such discussions as, to date, such research has focused on the period following informed consent. This study examines ACPs' understanding of clinical research in the treatment period before consent.


We conducted in-depth interviews with adult ACPs with limited treatment options at four clinics in an academic medical center. So as not to influence patients' perspectives, interviewers probed patients' knowledge of clinical research only if the patient first brought up the topic. Interviews (40-60 min) were audio-recorded, transcribed, and analyzed thematically and via quantitative content analysis by an interdisciplinary team.


Of 78 patients recruited, 56 (72%) spontaneously brought up the topic of clinical research during interview and are included in this analysis. Qualitative thematic analysis and quantitative content analysis revealed that patients' knowledge varied in terms of (1) accuracy and (2) specificity (level of detail). ACPs who spoke with high specificity were not always accurate, and ACPs with accurate knowledge included both high- and low-specificity speakers.


ACPs' knowledge of clinical research is variable. Patients who can discuss the technical details of their care may or may not understand the broader purpose and procedures of clinical trials. Understanding this variability is important for improving patient-provider communication about clinical research and supporting efforts to provide individualized care for ACPs.


Academic medical centers; Biomedical research; Decision-making; Metastatic disease; Neoplasms; Patient comprehension

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