Doctors Don't Shun the Sun

Most Not Following Their Own Sun-Protection Advice

July 30, 2002 -- When it comes to protecting themselves from the sun's harmful rays, doctors don't follow their own advice much better than their patients. A new study shows physicians are actually less likely than others to avoid sun exposure by staying in the shade or wearing a long-sleeved shirt.

Exposure to sunlight has been associated with the high rates of skin cancer cases in the U.S., including the potentially life-threatening form of skin cancer called melanoma. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and about 53,600 melanoma cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.

Cancer experts and federal officials have endorsed the following three sun protection behaviors [SPBs] to reduce exposure to dangerous ultraviolet radiation from the sun:

  • Avoid exposure to the sun during peak midday hours.
  • Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
  • Wear protective clothing, hats, and sunglasses when outdoors.

But the study found that doctors were no more likely than their patients to follow these behaviors. Researchers found the number of physicians and others who said they regularly used at least one form of sun protection was about equal (47% among the doctors and 45% among the patients).

Although physicians were more likely to use sunscreen than their patients (42% vs. 28%, respectively), they were less likely to stay in the shade (17% vs. 28%) or wear a long-sleeved shirt (1% vs. 9%).

Overall, the study found the number of participants who said they always or nearly always use a sunscreen was in line with the national average at about 35%. Twenty-three percent said they always or nearly always wear a wide-brimmed hat or protective clothing to avoid UV rays.

For the study, researchers surveyed 100 clinic patients and 84 physicians at a Rhode Island teaching hospital during April 2000. The results appear in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Study author Christopher N. Sciamanna, MD, MPH, of the Brown University School of Medicine, and colleagues say they had expected physicians to report a higher use of sun protection behaviors because their medical training should translate to lower rates of cancer risk behaviors.

The authors suggest one reason that might explain why there was little difference between the two groups is that doctors might regard skin cancer as a cosmetic disorder, as the bulk of cases are not malignant.

They say more research is needed to examine physician's attitudes about sun protection.

"Given physicians' propensity to preach the health behaviors that they practice, it is unlikely that physicians will be a force for encouraging SPB use among their patients unless they believe in the value of sun protection behaviors and practice them routinely, or at least more frequently then their patients," write the authors.