A study conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health suggests positive social interaction may help chemotherapy patients survive longer.
“People model behavior based on what’s around them,” said Jeff Lienert, the lead author of the study. “For example, you will often eat more when you’re dining with friends, even if you can’t see what they’re eating. When you’re bicycling, you will often perform better when you’re cycling with others, regardless of their performance.”
Lienert, who is currently a doctoral student at the University of Oxford and a fellow at NIH, explained the results showed that chemotherapy patients were likely to live five years longer following the end of their regimens if they interacted with other patients who also survived five years.
Results also showed that patients were likely to die earlier if they interacted with those who did not survive at least five years following the end of their regimens.
Lienert added that he observed a cumulative effect indicating that interacting with five patients for one hour was less effective than interacting with a single patient for five hours.
Although the cause was not examined, the researchers believe a patient’s outcome is related to the body’s stress response.
“There is this idea of consistent co-presence in addition to just the social influence,” he said.
Data for the study was collected from electronic records between 2000 and 2009 from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, which logged patients’ visits and time spent in chemotherapy wards at two of the country’s largest hospitals in Oxfordshire.
All of the patients in the sample were undergoing chemotherapy, with breast cancer being the most common type of cancer.
Lienert explained he chose to conduct the study in the U.K. due to the accessibility of health data.
“The way that the NHS is able to collect data, allowed us to have everybody in the system at once, there wasn’t any sort of selection based on what HMO you’re in or what insurance you use,” he added.
Since the study relied only on electronic data, Leinert explained their findings were constrained by limitations.
“On the one hand it is pretty powerful that we were able to test for social influence pretty relative to other studies in this field at minimal expense and minimal patient involvement,” he said.
“The disadvantage of this is we didn’t actually know whether these patients were actually interacting or not, so all we have is time stamp information on when they were in the ward or if they were in the ward together,” he added. “We assume them being together is a minimally-sufficient criterion for there to be social interaction.”
Regarding future studies, Leinert explained that more studies would need to reinforce their conclusions.
“One would be doing a comparative study in the U.S.,” he said. “We think there’s strong reason to think these findings would hold in the U.S., but we don’t know that,” he added.
“Instead of using electronic medical records, going in and verifying this research by interviewing patients,” he said.
According to the American Cancer Society, between 3 and 48 percent of patients in the U.S. with late-stage cancers are treated with chemotherapy.