PMH battles angry parents

PMH battles angry parents

Princess Margaret Hospital's head of cancer services has spoken out about rising levels of anger and aggression from parents, with some making unrealistic demands in desperation for their sick children to be cured.

Angela Alessandri, who went public earlier this year about the hospital's lack of resources putting pressure on staff, said some parents were relying on quackery and misinformation on websites and social media to demand experimental and unproved treatments. She has described, in the Australian Medical Association industry magazine Medicus, increasingly unacceptable behaviour by families.

Dr Alessandri said though anger and loss of control were normal feelings for parents of children with cancer, staff were increasingly becoming the target for their frustrations.

"We expect anger to be expressed by family members we care for at some point," she said.

"However, we do not expect it to last and be forcefully expressed at every encounter.

"Aggressive behaviour is tolerated to some extent because of the circumstances families are experiencing, however, we must draw the line at repeated episodes that cause distress to staff, other families and our young vulnerable patients."

Dr Alessandri said, on the positive side, cure rates for children with cancer had vastly improved, with the overall five-year survival rate now 83 per cent.

For some, being a "good parent" meant exhausting all treatment options so they left no stone unturned, but this meant falling into the trap of relying on quackery promoted on the internet.

"In extreme circumstances, parents will demand access to experimental, unproven therapies for their children even in the context of well-established standard treatments or the availability of late phase clinical trials," she said.

"Parent-driven blogs and Facebook are double-edged, having the ability to provide support and engagement while also acting as a base for misinformation and spreading ill will."

Dr Alessandri said staff had to walk a fine line of supporting families but ensuring the medical interests of the child were paramount.

When doctors and parents disagreed on treatment, the matter sometimes had to be referred to PMH's clinical ethics service to provide an objective opinion.