Physicians' sun protection lapses match those of patients

July 30, 2002

Physicians are no more likely than their patients to protect themselves from the sun's harmful rays, a new study reveals.

"We expected physicians to report a higher use of sun protection behaviors because [their] medical training should translate to lower rates of cancer risk behaviors," explains lead author Christopher N. Sciamanna, M.D., M.P.H., from the Brown University School of Medicine. Exposure to sunlight, he notes, has repeatedly been implicated in the high incidence of skin cancers in the United States.

The investigators assumed that physicians would be inclined to act as "role models for a healthy lifestyle."

Instead, the researchers report in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion, patients and doctors were equally likely to claim they used some form of sun protection when going outside for an hour or more on a sunny summer day.

Sciamanna and his colleagues surveyed 100 clinic patients and 84 physicians at a Rhode Island teaching hospital during April 2000. Overall, the researchers found, responses were in keeping with national averages: 34.6 percent of participants reported always or nearly always using sunscreen and 23.1 percent reported always or nearly always wearing a wide-brimmed hat or long-sleeved shirt to avoid sun exposure.

The researchers also found that regular use of at least one form of sun protection was as common among the patients (45 percent) as among the physicians (47.1 percent).

However, the specific forms of sun protection used by members of the two groups differed. "Physicians were more likely than patients to regularly use sunscreen ... but less likely to stay in the shade or wear a long-sleeved shirt ... to avoid sun exposure," Sciamanna reports.

"We are not certain what factors explain the lack of a difference between patients and physicians in their use of sun protection," Sciamanna says. Gender and race do not appear to be responsible, as the two groups were closely matched in both respects.

One possibility, he notes, is that physicians may regard skin cancer as a primarily cosmetic disorder, as the bulk of cases are not malignant. In addition, he explains, the role of sun exposure in the development of potentially life-threatening melanomas after age 18 is still being debated.

Sciamanna and his colleagues suggest further research to explore physicians' attitudes toward sun protection.

"It is unlikely," they conclude, "that physicians will be a force for encouraging sun protection behaviors among their patients unless they believe in the value [of these behaviors] and practice them routinely, or at least more frequently than their patients."
-end-
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or www.hbns.org.
Interviews: Contact Christopher Sciamanna at (401) 793-8220 or Christopher_Sciamanna@Brown.edu.
American Journal of Health Promotion: Call (248) 682-0707 or visit www.healthpromotionjournal.com.

Center for Advancing Health

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