M. D. Anderson study cites personal habits, attitudes as key factors
HOUSTON – Pediatricians need to give their patients more information about skin cancer prevention and sun protection, according to a recent study from The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Published in the January/February 2003 issue of Pediatric Dermatology, the survey of 202 Houston and Harris County, Texas pediatricians pinpoints the need for more skin cancer prevention education during routine childhood checkups.
The survey found that though the vast majority of pediatricians surveyed (96 percent) believed it was important to begin skin cancer prevention in early childhood, fewer routinely recommended that their patients protect their skin from the sun (74 percent) and just over half (56 percent) performed annual full body exams.
“While pediatricians recognize the need for sun protection in children, they need to take an even more proactive role in helping patients and parents understand the importance of early sun protection in skin cancer prevention,” said Ellen R. Gritz, Ph.D., chair of M. D. Anderson’s Department of Behavioral Science and lead investigator on the study.
Most pediatricians cited lack of time and preoccupation with other health problems as their reason for not addressing skin cancer prevention during check-ups. But the survey also found a direct correlation between a doctor’s personal sun protection habits and the skin cancer prevention advice they gave to their patients. “Pediatricians who saw sun protection as a priority in their own lives were far more likely to make sun protection a priority with their patients,” added Gritz.
Skin cancer is currently the most common form of cancer in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, over one million new cases of skin cancer are expected to be diagnosed this year. The American Academy of Pediatrics further states that 80 percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure comes before the age of 18, and a child who uses proper sun protection is 78 percent less likely to develop skin cancer later in life.
The study’s findings are key because it was conducted in the Sunbelt. The sun’s stronger rays in the southern United States make Houston and Harris County a hotbed for skin cancer occurrences. But regardless of location, there is always a risk, cautions Dr. Gritz.
Of the pediatricians surveyed, three-fourths routinely mention sun protection during regular check-ups, but far fewer recommend such precautions as reapplying sunscreen or wearing protective clothing.
The study also revealed that while 94 percent of pediatricians discussed skin cancer risk factors with patients who had a sunburn at the time of their visit, only 32 percent discussed these risk factors with patients on a routine basis.
“Sunburns during childhood increase a person’s lifetime risk of developing melanoma,” said Mary Tripp, co-investigator on the study. “It is therefore vitally important that children and their parents are counseled on protection practices early on – before the child’s first sunburn.”
The study was conducted in 1998 using a survey of 202 pediatricians practicing general pediatrics in Houston and Harris County, Texas. The study used a mail survey to assess the physician’s sun protection recommendations and skin cancer preventive counseling and clinical practices.