Cancer diagnosis and treatment in the Northern Territory: assessing health service performance for indigenous Australians

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Abstract

Background

Indigenous Australians with cancer are diagnosed with more advanced disease and have lower survival than other Australians.

Aim

To investigate reasons for these differences.

Methods

Retrospective cohort study of 1197 indigenous and nonindigenous people in the Northern Territory diagnosed with cancers of the colon and rectum, lung, breast, cervix and non-Hodgkin lymphoma between 1991 and 2000. Outcome measures were stage at diagnosis and relative risk of cancer death.

Results

Indigenous people compared with nonindigenous people had higher relative odds of advanced stage of cancer at diagnosis (relative odds 1.9, 95% CI 1.3–2.7) for four cancers but lower relative odds for lung cancer (relative odds 0.3, 95% CI 0.2–0.5). None of the potentially contributing factors examined could explain this difference. Risk of cancer death (adjusted for cancer type and age and stage at diagnosis) was higher in indigenous than in nonindigenous people (relative risk 1.7, 95% CI 1.4–2.1). This difference, however, was confined to indigenous people with an indigenous first language (relative risk 2.9, 95% CI 2.2–3.8). Adjustment for cancer treatment variables further reduced but did not eliminate this higher risk of death.

Conclusion

Although more advanced stage at diagnosis appeared to be a sufficient explanation for poorer cancer outcome in indigenous people whose first language was English, poorer treatment also contributed to, but was still not sufficient to explain, poorer outcome in those who had an indigenous first language. Other factors, possibly including communication difficulties, knowledge of and attitudes to cancer symptoms and treatment and social and cultural ‘distance’ from mainstream health services, may also be involved.

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