He ignores other aspects of the cost and value of medical innovation that take into account patient needs and long term impact.
True, spending on cancer treatments has climbed from $24 billion in 2004 to about $37 billion today. But that’s less than a half a percent of total US health-care spending.
More important: While expensive, since 2004 such innovations were largely responsible for a 40 percent increase in living cancer survivors, from 9.8 million to 13.6 million. The new therapies also saved $188 billion on hospitalizations.
In fact, a new study by Dr. Lee Newcomer confirms this result: United Healthcare’s cancer costs dropped as spending on new cancer drugs increased.
Finally, new drugs help people go back to work. The value of the increase in ability to work is 2.5 times what we spend on new therapies.
Presant's biggest problem, though, is that his cost diagnosis is one-size-fits-all: It treats all patients as the same, ignoring the genetic variation in patient response that a new class of “targeted” cancer drugs will soon address.
Dig a bit deeper, and it’s clear that Presant may have a more ideological motivation: By ignoring the role of insurers in jacking up the out of pocket cost of cancer drugs to discourage use, he sides with payors, not patients. It's the health plans that want docs to use 'pathways' -- back of the napkin calculations -- to make life and death decisions. Docs who stick to the pathways get bonuses and if they prescribe drugs outside the pathway they don't.
And this line of thinking does away with the Hippocratic Oath. No longer is the doctor’s first obligation “to apply for the benefit of the sick, all measures that are required.” Instead, Presant seems to believes three months of added life isn't worth it.
In fact, three months or less of survival can lead to a lifetime free from disease because average survival masks greater gains in many groups. Back in the 1980s, experts predicted AZT, the first anti-AIDS drug, would add less than three months of life. Yet nearly 90 percent of people taking AZT lived for two years. That allowed them to survive long enough to get the next-generation anti-retroviral combination that now keeps HIV in check.
Even when innovations don’t work miracles, refusing to die has a value not measured by the ASCO app.
When my friend Lynne Jacoby was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer in April 2012, she was told she’d die in weeks. She accepted the diagnosis, but not the prognosis. She entered a clinical trial and received an innovative treatment tailored to her tumors. She was able to travel, work and spend time with her wife and family.
Lynne died last Oct. 6, less than three weeks before her genome was to be sequenced for the next innovation. Her last written words measure the value of innovation Presant ignores:
“For someone like me, who is . . . told that my life would be measured in weeks, I guess I would just want everyone to realize that all of our lives are just measured in weeks, and we have to do whatever it takes to make that as many weeks as possible for everyone.”