Ramifications of poor medical education and screening in minority populations: an extensive acral melanoma

By Manasi Jiwrajka

Ramifications of poor medical education and screening in minority populations: an extensive acral melanoma reports a case of a Samoan man with acral melanoma and explores the precipitating factors leading to the progression of a condition that may otherwise have been screened for and treated at a much earlier stage.

This case is from the Naval Health Clinic in Honolulu, Hawaii. The authors report the case of an 82 year old Samoan man who presents with pain in his left heel “due to a large [9x7cm], exophytic, hyperpigmented, polypoid mass.” No lymphadenopathy or symptoms were reported. A diagnosis of acral lentiginous malignant melanoma was made after an MRI and a biopsy of the fungating mass. The case reports that “Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were one of the only two racial groups where the leading cause of death was cancer, with rates above the national average.”

The Pacific Islands including Fiji, Tonga and Samoa have a rich cultural history dating back to about 1000BCE, followed by German, American, New Zealand and British colonial rule until the 1900s (2).Samoa is made up of nine volcanic islands, located in the Pacific Ocean. The islands are divided into two territories: the American territory and the Independent State of Samoa. Of cultural and political relevance is the social structure of families and groups, whereby although nuclear families exist, traditionally, each family is part of an ‘aiga’ or an extended family headed by a mataai (leader) who has a voice in the village.

Whilst the American part of Samoa is developed due to the resources available from the United States, the Independent Samoa lags behind economically as well as in terms of healthcare. In the 1940s, many primary healthcare institutions were set in place as an after-effect of the historical colonial rule, and medical practitioners now exist in Samoa. “In 2005, Samoa had 0.27 physicians per 1,000 population, 0.02 pharmaceutical personnel per 1,000, 0.03 dentistry personnel per 1,000, and 0.94 nurses and midwives per 1,000 [compared to Australia that had] 2.99 physicians per 1,000 population, 1.04 pharmaceutical personnel per 1,000, 0.69 dentistry personnel per 1,000, and 9.59 nurses and midwives per 1,000.” (3) In many Samoan villages the traditional healers or fofo (most recent estimate is 900 traditional healers in Samoa) still continue to provide traditional care (3). In more recent times, these fofos have received public health training, which has given rise to a combination of both biomedical and traditional theories of illness, while at the same time creating a conflict between the two paradigms (2). For many Samoans overseas in Australia, New Zealand or the United States, there is a belief that illness occurs either through spirits or because they have not helped their family back in Samoa (4). Perhaps as a consequence of previous colonial rule, there is a lack of trust towards Western medical practices, and if medicine does not work, Samoans refer to the fofo (4).

Melanoma as a Global Health Issue

Melanoma is a Global Health issue; globally, it is the 19th most common cancer and 232,000 new cases were diagnosed in 2012, which constitutes 2% of all cancers (5). The WHO estimates that one in three diagnoses of cancer is in fact skin cancer. In countries such as Australia, melanoma is the fourth most common cancer diagnosed (6) and as such national preventative strategies have been implemented, and screening processes have been employed by healthcare services for early identification and excision of melanomas. These preventative strategies include reducing sun exposure, sun protection and a complete skin examination by the primary care doctor (7). In the case, the Samoan patient there was a two-fold delay: first, in the delay of diagnosis, which is common in people of colour because of the common misconception that melanoma does not affect dark-skinned people (8); and second, a delay in seeking care at an earlier stage of his condition “due to lack of understanding of knowledge to disease and the long distances that must be traveled to obtain proper, specialty care.” (1)

Accessing Healthcare – Equity and Barriers

There are biological and social determinants of health. In the above mentioned case, a biological determinant of the Samoan patient would be his dark skin tone, and as such his increased predisposition to acral melanomas. Some of the social determinants include socioeconomic status, education, cultural beliefs and health insurance. Specifically, the case report mentions that “low socioeconomic status patients generally know little about their own medical condition, tend to have a high school education or less, and have difficulties arranging transport, all factors contributing to care barriers.”(1) These factors have a follow-on effect that influences access and compliance of care. Problems with access or proper compliance invariably results in patients presenting with advanced disease, which is a burden both for the patient as well as the health system.

The three-delay model (9) used in maternal health is a useful tool to conceptualize the barriers experienced by minority groups: (i) a delay or barrier in making a decision to seek care (ii) barrier to reaching care, as well as (iii) barriers to receiving adequate health care.

(i) Delay in seeking care

Lack of knowledge

In the case report, the authors write about the relevance of education: “low socioeconomic patients generally know little about their own medical condition, tend to have a high school education or less”. As a result, they present to the doctor much later in the progression of their disease compared to patients of a higher socioeconomic status who “tend to recognise skin changes when they self-screen and obtain medical treatment earlier”(1).

Some Samoans believe in the role of traditional healers or fofo, creating a conflict between Western medicine and traditional beliefs. “Healthcare practices often clash with societal beliefs, and so patient education regarding their disease and its possible progression is important.” (1)

Cost – benefit

Similarly, other factors causing delay in seeking care are economic in nature. There is an opportunity cost associated with seeking care — leaving work to go to a healthcare practice implies that the patient (and maybe another relative) will need leave from work and lose income.  In the case of acral melanoma, where early identification of the melanocytic lesion is hugely influential on prognosis, a delay in seeking care due to a lack of knowledge or due to the cost of seeking care can have significant implications on the progression of the condition.

(ii) Barriers to reaching care

These barriers are often physical or geographical. Remoteness and a lack of transportation networks for access to even basic services is prohibitive of Global Health. “Poor access to care for [rural and isolated] populations is mainly due to remoteness, travel time, lack of speciality care, and the cost of obtaining healthcare services, with longer distances correlating with infrequent doctor visits, decreased use of preventive services and fewer routine follow-up visits” (1). There is good evidence that rural populations have poor access to healthcare services and consequently poorer health outcomes (10-12). “Having a usual source of care improves access to medical screening services and decreases health disparities; however, this is often not available to minorities.” (1)

(iii) Barriers to receiving adequate care

These barriers are crucial to identify and address as they are a pervasive barrier to Global Health. In Samoa, there is no universal medical benefit system; however some government healthcare agencies provide some free healthcare (3). American Samoans and other “uninsured minorities are eligible for insurance [but] they often do not sign up for it due to lack of awareness or limited proficiency in English” (1). Language barriers can cause poor communication and decreased trust between the doctor and the patient. Another barrier to receiving good care is the cultural competency of the physician. “Typically, the ethnicity of physicians does not reflect that of their patients, who consequently believe that their physician is unaware of popular culture alternative/holistic medicine. Perhaps a Samoan provider would have related better to our patient…and would have educated him about his advanced disease and need for modern medical treatment, thus leading to a better outcome (1).”

We as health professionals can play a crucial role in addressing some of these barriers to adequate healthcare, and subsequently reducing the burden on health systems globally.

1. Jackson CR, Fernelius C, Arora N. Ramifications of poor medical education and screening in minority populations: an extensive acral melanoma. BMJ Case Reports. 2015;2015.

2. Ember Ea. Encyclopedia of Medical Anthropology: Health and Illness in the World’s Cultures. New York: Kluwer Academic Publishers; 2004 2004.

3. Boslaugh SE. Health Care Systems Around the World: A Comparative Guide. Health Care Systems Around the World: A Comparative Guide. SAGE Publications, Inc. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2013.

4. Queensland Health SoQ. Samoan Ethnicity and Background [Web]. 2014 [updated 12 June 2014]. Available from: http://www.health.qld.gov.au/multicultural/health_workers/samoan-preg-prof.pdf

5. Holmes D. The cancer that rises with the Sun. Nature. 2014;515(7527):S110-S1.

6. Waterford K. Melanoma: from little things, deadly things can grow: Australian Medical Association; 2014. Available from: https://ama.com.au/ausmed/melanoma-little-things-deadly-things-can-grow.

7. Markovic S, Svetomir NM, Lori AE, Ravi DR, Roger HW. Malignant Melanoma in the 21st Century, Part 1: Epidemiology, Risk Factors, Screening, Prevention, and Diagnosis. Mayo Clinic proceedings. 2007;82(3):364.

8. Gupta S. Skin colour: No hiding in the dark. Nature. 2014;515(7527):S121-S3.

9. Thaddeus S, Maine D. Too far to walk: Maternal mortality in context. Social Science & Medicine. 1994;38(8):1091-110.

10. Armstrong KEJPJV, B K, K. E. Jong PJV, Armstrong BK. Rural inequalities in cancer care and outcome. Medical journal of Australia. 2005;182(1):13-4.

11. Casey MM, Thiede Call K, Klingner JM. Are rural residents less likely to obtain recommended preventive healthcare services? American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2001;21(3):182-8.

12. Nemet GF, Bailey AJ. Distance and health care utilization among the rural elderly. Social Science & Medicine. 2000;50(9):1197-208.