Rubbing Saltz in the wound

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  • 12/14/2012

According to Reuters, “Medical providers have begun to think more about cost, as well as safety and effectiveness, when they decide on cancer treatments.”

That’s a pretty common statement these days – but it’s important to consider and discuss that “cost” is as relative a concept as “safety and effectiveness.”

Doctors at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center decided in November not to use Zaltrap, (an $11,000 a month medicine for colon cancer) because it has only a "modest" impact on survival, works no better than Avastin, a similar but cheaper competitor, and has worse side effects.

"In cases where there are co-pays, they really do effect the consumer," says Mark Mynhier of PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Patients are saying 'I can't afford to pay 10 or 20 percent of a $100,000 therapy.”

That is true for many patients – and perhaps for most patients. But what about patients for whom Zaltrap works better than Avastin?

Reuters: “Linking value to patient outcomes … is particularly important in oncology, where treatment costs can total tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Certainly. But outcomes data must also be used to learn about specific patient responsiveness – and lead to the development of better companion diagnostics.

Reuters: “As scientists unravel the biological underpinnings of cancer cells, new targeted therapies are being developed, but the process is expensive.”

Alas, Dr. Leonard Saltz, chief of Memorial Sloan-Kettering's gastrointestinal oncology service said the solution might just be to walk away from drugs with small, incremental benefits.

"We simply can't afford to pay these very, very large amounts for drugs that offer most people very small benefit," Dr. Saltz said. "We haven't figured out how to rein it in."

Dr. Saltz’s comment, alas, reinforces the fact that physicians rarely understand the drug development process. There are few discontinuous “eureka!” moments in drug development. Progress comes step by step, one incremental innovation at a time. But physicians (and particularly oncologists such as Dr. Saltz) should appreciate the importance of incremental innovation.

Rather than a wholesale denial of a product such as Zaltrap (and minus robust outcomes data or a companion diagnostic tool) an interim strategy might be to adopt a risk-sharing scheme wherein pharmas and federal programs establish a measure of success for a therapy and companies reimburse the government when their products fail to meet that standard.

In other words, let’s measure and reward for clinical effectiveness and ensure that medicine remains patient-centric rather than cost-obsessed.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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