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Poor Records Limit Comparison of Cancer Therapies

Kate Traynor

A new report urges alternative-therapy cancer clinics to improve their record keeping, particularly on whether patients are alive in the first five years after treatment, so that comparisons can be made between those therapies and mainstream ones.

Researchers reported in the February Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine that they could not ascertain from the medical records at two alternative-therapy cancer clinics in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, the status of 22 percent of the patients five years after treatment. The overall lack of verifiable data, said the researchers, prevented a planned comparison of the five-year survival rates between these clinics and mainstream medical centers.

Medical charts for 19 percent of the patients at San Diego's Livingston Foundation Medical Center and Tijuana's Bio-Medical Center lacked the diagnosis date or disease stage or both, the researchers said. Pathology reports were unavailable for 27 percent of the clinics' cancer patients.

Data was obtained from the records of 149 new patients who received cancer treatment at the Bio-Medical Center during the first quarter of 1992 and 193 new patients treated at the Livingston Center during 1992. According to the researchers, about 1,200 people visit the Bio-Medical Center each year for treatment of cancer and other illnesses, and most of the 250 to 400 patients who come to the Livingston Center each year seek cancer therapy.

Most of the records studied by the researchers pertained to patients who received treatment for breast or reproductive-system cancer.

The record-keeping practices varied widely between the two clinics. Whereas the Livingston Center maintained records for all of its cancer patients, enabling the researchers to determine the status of 95 percent of the patients five years after treatment, the Bio-Medical Center maintained charts for 90 percent of clinic cancer patients. Information contained in the Bio-Medical Center charts allowed for five-year follow-up of 57 percent of the patients.

The medical records kept at Livingston contained a patient's age, Social Security number (SSN), and all other information required by the California Tumor Registry. Thus, survival of the Livingston patients could be tracked using the Social Security Death Index. Charts for most of the Bio-Medical Center’s clientele did not contain the patient's age or SSN, making follow-up difficult.

This study was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the National Cancer Institute.