Telephone interventions for managing symptoms in adults with cancer

People with cancer experience a variety of symptoms caused by their disease and its treatment. Symptoms can include depression, anxiety, fatigue and pain. These are often managed, day-to-day, by patients or their family members. If symptoms are not well managed, this can lead to other problems, such as difficulties in carrying out everyday tasks, poor sleep and poor quality of life.

Cancer professionals have developed psychological and educational treatments to help people to manage cancer symptoms. These treatments (or interventions) can be delivered by telephone (telephone interventions) in the patients’ homes instead of face-to-face in hospital.

What questions does this review aim to answer?
This Cochrane Review aimed to answer the following questions.

1. Are telephone interventions for adults with cancer effective in relieving symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment?

2. Which symptoms are most reduced when telephone interventions are used?

3. What parts of telephone interventions have the most impact in reducing cancer symptoms?

In this review, telephone interventions were interventions given only, or mainly, by telephone. They were given by health professionals. As well as telephone contact, they could include face-to-face contact, or printed, digital or online information, such as, leaflets, computer programs and websites.

How did we answer these questions?
We searched medical databases and journals to find all randomised controlled trials that used a telephone intervention to reduce any cancer symptoms. Randomised controlled trials allocate people randomly to one treatment or another; they provide the most reliable evidence. Studies could compare telephone interventions with another telephone intervention, with another type of intervention (e.g. face-to-face), or with usual care. Participants in these studies were adults with any kind of cancer at any stage.

We included 32 studies with a total of 6250 participants. Most studies (21) were from the USA. Nine studies recruited women with breast cancer, 11 included people with breast, colorectal, lung, or prostate cancer. Fourteen studies included people with early-stage cancer. Nurses provided interventions in 24 studies. Only 10 studies delivered interventions solely by telephone, and 16 studies combined telephone calls with other materials (printed or digital). Studies measured symptoms of depression, anxiety, emotional distress, uncertainty, fatigue, pain, sexual symptoms, and breathlessness. They also measured the effect of all the symptoms together (the general symptom experience).

Most studies compared a telephone intervention with usual care alone or usual care with additional support. Eight studies compared two telephone interventions against each other; some also compared these with usual care.

Because the studies were so different from each other, we could not combine the results into one analysis for each symptom. However, some studies measured changes in symptoms using standardised or similar scales. They recorded participants’ scale scores at the beginning of the intervention, during the intervention, and at the end, resulting in a ‘change score’. We analysed the results from studies that recorded change scores.

What does evidence from the review tell us?
Twenty-one studies provided evidence on depression compared to usual care or other interventions, but only nine provided change scores. These found that telephone interventions appeared to reduce symptoms of depression. Likewise, telephone interventions appeared effective compared to usual care or other interventions in reducing anxiety (16 studies; 5 contributed change scores); fatigue (9 studies; 6 contributed change scores); and emotional distress (7 studies; 5 contributed change scores).

Evidence for other symptoms was limited, making it difficult to draw conclusions.

Certainty of the evidence
Telephone interventions appear to relieve some symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment, however, the studies were small and very different from each other, so our confidence (certainty) in the evidence is very low. It is unclear whether telephone interventions alone, or combined with face-to-face meetings, or printed or audio materials, are most effective in reducing the many symptoms that people with cancer experience.

Telephone interventions are convenient for patients, their families and healthcare workers but the results of our review were not conclusive. Further, rigorous research on this topic would help to answer our review questions.

Search date
This review includes evidence published up to January 2019.

Authors' conclusions: 

Telephone interventions provide a convenient way of supporting self-management of cancer-related symptoms for adults with cancer. These interventions are becoming more important with the shift of care closer to patients' homes, the need for resource/cost containment, and the potential for voluntary sector providers to deliver healthcare interventions. Some evidence supports the use of telephone-delivered interventions for symptom management for adults with cancer; most evidence relates to four commonly experienced symptoms - depression, anxiety, emotional distress, and fatigue. Some telephone-delivered interventions were augmented by combining them with face-to-face meetings and provision of printed or digital materials. Review authors were unable to determine whether telephone alone or in combination with other elements provides optimal reduction in symptoms; it appears most likely that this will vary by symptom. It is noteworthy that, despite the potential for telephone interventions to deliver cost savings, none of the studies reviewed included any form of health economic evaluation.

Further robust and adequately reported trials are needed across all cancer-related symptoms, as the certainty of evidence generated in studies within this review was very low, and reporting was of variable quality. Researchers must strive to reduce variability between studies in the future. Studies in this review are characterised by clinical and methodological diversity; the level of this diversity hindered comparison across studies. At the very least, efforts should be made to standardise outcome measures. Finally, studies were compromised by inclusion of small samples, inadequate concealment of group allocation, lack of observer blinding, and short length of follow-up. Consequently, conclusions related to symptoms most amenable to management by telephone-delivered interventions are tentative.

Read the full abstract...

People with cancer experience a variety of symptoms as a result of their disease and the therapies involved in its management. Inadequate symptom management has implications for patient outcomes including functioning, psychological well-being, and quality of life (QoL). Attempts to reduce the incidence and severity of cancer symptoms have involved the development and testing of psycho-educational interventions to enhance patients' symptom self-management. With the trend for care to be provided nearer patients' homes, telephone-delivered psycho-educational interventions have evolved to provide support for the management of a range of cancer symptoms. Early indications suggest that these can reduce symptom severity and distress through enhanced symptom self-management.


To assess the effectiveness of telephone-delivered interventions for reducing symptoms associated with cancer and its treatment. To determine which symptoms are most responsive to telephone interventions. To determine whether certain configurations (e.g. with/without additional support such as face-to-face, printed or electronic resources) and duration/frequency of intervention calls mediate observed cancer symptom outcome effects.

Search strategy: 

We searched the following databases: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 2019, Issue 1); MEDLINE via OVID (1946 to January 2019); Embase via OVID (1980 to January 2019); (CINAHL) via Athens (1982 to January 2019); British Nursing Index (1984 to January 2019); and PsycINFO (1989 to January 2019). We searched conference proceedings to identify published abstracts, as well as SIGLE and trial registers for unpublished studies. We searched the reference lists of all included articles for additional relevant studies. Finally, we handsearched the following journals: Cancer, Journal of Clinical Oncology, Psycho-oncology, Cancer Practice, Cancer Nursing, Oncology Nursing Forum, Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, and Palliative Medicine. We restricted our search to publications published in English.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-RCTs that compared one or more telephone interventions with one other, or with other types of interventions (e.g. a face-to-face intervention) and/or usual care, with the stated aim of addressing any physical or psychological symptoms of cancer and its treatment, which recruited adults (over 18 years) with a clinical diagnosis of cancer, regardless of tumour type, stage of cancer, type of treatment, and time of recruitment (e.g. before, during, or after treatment).

Data collection and analysis: 

We used Cochrane methods for trial selection, data extraction and analysis. When possible, anxiety, depressive symptoms, fatigue, emotional distress, pain, uncertainty, sexually-related and lung cancer symptoms as well as secondary outcomes are reported as standardised mean differences (SMDs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs), and we presented a descriptive synthesis of study findings. We reported on findings according to symptoms addressed and intervention types (e.g. telephone only, telephone combined with other elements). As many studies included small samples, and because baseline scores for study outcomes often varied for intervention and control groups, we used change scores and associated standard deviations. The certainty of the evidence for each outcome was interpreted using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) approach.

Main results: 

Thirty-two studies were eligible for inclusion; most had moderate risk of bias,often related to blinding. Collectively, researchers recruited 6250 people and studied interventions in people with a variety of cancer types and across the disease trajectory, although many participants had breast cancer or early-stage cancer and/or were starting treatment. Studies measured symptoms of anxiety, depression, emotional distress, uncertainty, fatigue, and pain, as well as sexually-related symptoms and general symptom intensity and/or distress.

Interventions were primarily delivered by nurses (n = 24), most of whom (n = 16) had a background in oncology, research, or psychiatry. Ten interventions were delivered solely by telephone; the rest combined telephone with additional elements (i.e. face-to-face consultations and digital/online/printed resources). The number of calls delivered ranged from 1 to 18; most interventions provided three or four calls.

Twenty-one studies provided evidence on effectiveness of telephone-delivered interventions and the majority appeared to reduce symptoms of depression compared to control. Nine studies contributed quantitative change scores (CSs) and associated standard deviation results (or these could be calculated). Likewise, many telephone interventions appeared effective when compared to control in reducing anxiety (16 studies; 5 contributed quantitative CS results); fatigue (9 studies; 6 contributed to quantitative CS results); and emotional distress (7 studies; 5 contributed quantitative CS results). Due to significant clinical heterogeneity with regards to interventions introduced, study participants recruited, and outcomes measured, meta-analysis was not conducted.

For other symptoms (uncertainty, pain, sexually-related symptoms, dyspnoea, and general symptom experience), evidence was limited; similarly meta-analysis was not possible, and results from individual studies were largely conflicting, making conclusions about their management through telephone-delivered interventions difficult to draw. Heterogeneity was considerable across all trials for all outcomes.

Overall, the certainty of evidence was very low for all outcomes in the review. Outcomes were all downgraded due to concerns about overall risk of bias profiles being frequently unclear, uncertainty in effect estimates and due to some inconsistencies in results and general heterogeneity.

Unsubstantiated evidence suggests that telephone interventions in some capacity may have a place in symptom management for adults with cancer. However, in the absence of reliable and homogeneous evidence, caution is needed in interpreting the narrative synthesis. Further, there were no clear patterns across studies regarding which forms of interventions (telephone alone versus augmented with other elements) are most effective. It is impossible to conclude with any certainty which forms of telephone intervention are most effective in managing the range of cancer-related symptoms that people with cancer experience.