Cancer Care Scores Higher Marks
As Americans fret about the quality of their health care, it appears cancer
patients are experiencing improvements in treatment. A major study conducted by
the Rand Group found that all Americans—whether wealthy or poor, black or
white—are likely to receive better care for cancer than anything else.
Findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine show that patients
receive proper medical attention for heart disease and other conditions only
about 55 percent of the time. But a separate study by the same group suggests
that the quality of cancer care is getting substantially better.
Looking at patients who suffered from either colon or breast cancer, at least
three fourths received the recommended care, according to findings published in
the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The researchers looked at several broad areas,
including detection, surgery, drug therapy and follow-up care. For colon cancer,
78 percent of patients were treated according to agreed-upon guidelines, while
for breast cancer, 84 percent of patients received quality care.
"[Care for] cancer is a bit better than other conditions." says Dr. Eric
Schneider, a health policy expert at Harvard who helped conduct the Rand group’s
cancer study. The recent treatment advances have been a driving force.
"There is much higher quality now than just five years ago." he says.
Another potential factor, he adds, is that the disease is seen as a major
battle. Since the war on cancer was declared in the 1970s, there has been a
major investment in research, with both patients and physicians seemingly more
engaged in fighting the disease.
"A large number of cancer specialists are looking over each others’ shoulders."
Indeed, Schneider points to the level of attention devoted to cancer as a way of
improving the current health care mess. The Rand team blames a "fragmented and
chaotic" system that makes it hard to deliver quality service for many chronic
conditions. Specialized cancer centers, which bring together different doctors
and nurses to treat patients, are growing more commonplace and may offer a model
for other diseases.
"It’s a team effort." Schneider explains, adding that such coordination can lead
to better quality care for the patient.
Still, the one dark cloud on the horizon is the increasing expense of cancer
treatments. In a recent speech to business leaders, Dr. Scott Gottleib of the
Food and Drug Administration said that cancer costs might be brought under
control if new therapies are developed more quickly and at a lower price.
"But right now, the opposite is happening." he said at the Annual Cancer
Progress Conference, held in New York. The number of new drugs has reached a
twenty-year low, while the overall costs of treating cancer have skyrocketed to
more the $156 billion a year. "That’s an astonishing figure." said Gottleib,
pointing out that the expense is larger than the "gross domestic product of all
but a few nations."
"It’s hard to predict what will happen with financing cancer care." says
Schneider. "Everyone is struggling with higher medical costs."