Researchers have found that a shorter version of a commonly used nutrition-assessment tool effectively helps cancer patients maintain proper nutrition and can potentially improve their outcomes.

“The full-length test for malnutrition is too cumbersome for a busy clinic,” said senior author Pauline Darling, MS, PhD, RD, of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada. “We need a tool that is quick, easy to apply, and accurate. Otherwise, testing for patients’ nutrition falls through the cracks.”

The scored Patient-Generated Subjective Global Assessment tool (PG-SGA) is the recommended test used to identify malnutrition in cancer patients. Patients answer questions about their weight, dietary intake, and symptoms that may affect intake and their activity level. Then, trained personnel perform a physical assessment. The PG-SGA is not often used in an outpatient setting because of the time and resources it takes to complete.

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Darling and colleagues looked at whether an abridged version of this tool—which forgoes the physical examination and has fewer questions—could be just as effective but easier to complete.

The short version, called the abridged Patient-Generated Subjective Global Assessment (abPG-SGA), is used by some institutions but until now there has been no data on how well it captures malnourished patients.

The study, which appeared online in Nutrition and Cancer (2013; doi: 10.1080/01635581.2013.755554), looked at 90 patients receiving chemotherapy from the outpatient oncology clinic at St. Michael’s Hospital between January and June 2008. The results found the abPG-SGA was the best tool for identifying patients who needed further nutrition assessment by a registered dietitian. It was also the best tool for minimizing the number of patients referred to a dietitian who turn out not to need dietary services.

In gauging the effectiveness of the tool, researchers found 36% of the patients they evaluated were malnourished. “This is a large number of people and it speaks to the importance of using a reliable approach to correctly identify the patients that are top priority from a nutrition standpoint,” said Darling, also a scientist at the hospital’s Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute. “Having malnutrition is associated with a higher risk of mortality and the chemotherapy is less effective in patients who are malnourished.”

Malnutrition is commonly seen in cancer patients because the cancer itself may cause increased metabolic demands, while it reduces the patient’s appetite. In addition, side effects from the cancer treatment can lead to reduced food intake.

Darling said it is important to catch malnutrition before patients’ nutritional status worsens because after a certain point, severe malnutrition is difficult to reverse.

“We need a tool in place that’s easy, quick, and effective because otherwise it’s difficult to identify which patients need the most help,” Darling said. “People often equate malnutrition with a low body mass index (BMI), but usually the patients’ weight is at or above normal range and is no indication of whether they’re malnourished. We are more interested in knowing about weight loss sustained over a short period of time and whether the patient is eating enough nourishing food.”