CANCER CAN MAKE PATIENTS FEEL A LOSS OF CONTROL as they turn over their lives to medical tests and procedures. Now, following a workshop hosted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in early 2011, a group of health care professionals is recommending that cancer patients receive an individualized treatment plan at the time of diagnosis to help them play more central roles in their own care.

Patient-centered care isn’t a new concept, says Patricia Ganz, a member of the workshop planning committee and a professor of health services at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Health. But no standards exist to guide health care providers on the best way to ensure each patient an opportunity to share in decision-making and to incorporate his or her specific needs in the development of a treatment plan.

The patient care plans discussed by the workshop panel would document patients’ tumor characteristics, therapy options, potential long-term side effects and necessary follow-up. They’re similar to documents that, in 2005, the IOM recommended all survivors receive following treatment; the institute now says the plans should be in place before treatment starts.

Essentially roadmaps for care, the plans will inform patients about their particular cancers and therapy options so they can play active roles through the treatment process and into survivorship. All information would be compiled in one document that the patient can keep, and it would be updated as treatment progresses. A doctor would discuss the plan with the patient as needed, says Ganz.

The IOM workshop participants point out that patient-centered care empowers patients and equips them to make more-informed choices. What’s more, they say, keeping patients involved in the treatment process also may improve quality of life. “When people feel like they’re involved in what’s happening to them and they’re given choices about their treatment, research shows they do better,” says Ruth McCorkle, an oncology nurse and professor at the Yale University School of Nursing in New Haven, Conn., who was not on the workshop panel but reviewed the report.

The committee pinpointed many obstacles to the adoption of patient-centered care plans; some participants recommended that insurers create financial incentives for physicians to implement them. In the meantime, says Ganz, patients shouldn’t hesitate to ask their doctors about developing one.