Dyspnea is common in patients with advanced cancer. Diagnostic procedures in patients with dyspnea are mandatory but often time-consuming and hamper rapid treatment of the underlying refractory symptoms. Opioids are the first-line drugs for the treatment of refractory dyspnea in palliative care patients with advanced lung cancer.
To evaluate the knowledge levels of medical doctors with different educational levels on the diagnosis of and treatment options for dyspnea in patients with advanced lung cancer in a palliative care setting, a case report and survey were distributed to physicians at the University Hospital Krems, describing acute dyspnea in a 64-year-old stage IV lung cancer patient. A total of 18 diagnostic and 22 therapeutic options were included in the survey. The physicians were asked to suggest and rank in order of preference their diagnosis and treatment options. Statistical analyses of the data were performed, including comparison of the responses of the senior doctors and the physicians in training.
A total of 106 surveys were completed. The respondents were 82 senior physicians and 24 physicians in training (response rates of 86% and 80%, respectively). Regarding diagnostic investigations, inspection and reading the patient’s chart were the most important diagnostic tools chosen by the respondents. The choices of performing blood gas analysis (p = 0.01) and measurement of oxygen saturation (p = 0.048) revealed a significant difference between the groups, both investigations performed more frequently by the physicians in training. As for non-pharmacological treatment options, providing psychological support was one of the most relevant options selected. A significant difference was seen in choosing the option of improving a patient’s position in relation to level of training (65.9% senior physicians vs. 30.4% physicians in training, p = 0.04). Regarding pharmacological treatment options, oxygen application was the most chosen approach. The second most frequent drug chosen was a ß-2 agonist. Only 9.8% of the senior physicians and 8.7% of the physicians in training suggested oral opioids as a treatment option, whereas intravenous opioids were suggested by 43.9% of the senior physicians and 21.7% of the physicians in training (p = 0.089). For subcutaneous application of opioids, the percentage of usage was significantly higher for the physicians in training than for the senior physicians (78.3% vs. 48.8%, p = 0.017, respectively).
The gold standard treatment for treating refractory dyspnea in patients with advanced lung cancer is opioids. Nevertheless, this pharmacological treatment option was not ranked as the most important. Discussing hypothetical cases of patients with advanced lung cancer and refractory dyspnea with experienced doctors as well as doctors at the beginning of their training may help improve symptom control for these patients.

© 2022. The Author(s).