NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are All Cancer Treatments Worth the Cost?

September 22, 2015

A group of prominent oncologists recently complained that the cost of new treatments makes them unaffordable for patients. They even suggested the imposition of "fair" prices.

These physicians claim that cancer patients could be responsible for $25,000 to $30,000 of out-of-pocket expenses but most insurance programs have far lower maximum out-of-pocket expense limits. In addition, many drug companies have assistance programs for patients who cannot afford their drugs.

Thus, drug cost do not appear to be the greatest financial risk to patients. The real problem seems to be the overuse of treatments that have small marginal benefit and high financial, physical and psychological costs.

Oncologists' expertise is in prescribing treatments that will be of value to their patients, however:

  • The American Society of Clinical Oncology identified widespread chemotherapy use among patients for whom there was no evidence of clinical value.
  • A recent study casts doubt on this treatment since it did not improve survival and worsened patients' quality of life.
  • Many new cancer drugs that are routinely approved offer statistically significant, but clinically unimportant, improvements.
  • Not all new, expensive cancer treatments are worthless; for example Imatinib (Gleevec) improved Leukemia five-year survival rates from 31% to 90%.

Oncologists offer successive rounds of minimally-effective treatments, perhaps because they feel the emotional imperative to "do something," but they should provide a favorable risk/benefit relationship and not mislead anxious patients.

If oncologists limited their prescription of high-cost, low-value, drugs that only offer adverse side effects and false hopes, declining sales would stop stimulating prices and would more accurately reflect the drugs' value to patients.

Source: Dr. Joel Zinberg, "End Needless -- and Expensive -- Treatments for Cancer," Inside Sources, September 15, 2015.


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