Is Rationed or Rational Medical Care In Our Future?

We are witness to a sea change in medicine. Doctors and nurses are being replaced by “healthcare providers;” medical judgment is being phased out in favor of therapeutic algorithms; and the considered selection of treatments is giving way to rigid therapy guidelines. All the while, the regulatory environment increasingly precludes the use of “off label” drugs. It is understandable why insurers, governmental entities and hospital chains might welcome these changes. After all, once therapies have been reduced to standardized formulae, one can predict costs, resource allocations and financial exposures to the twentieth decimal place. For many medical conditions, these approaches will provide adequate care for the majority of patients.

But, what of the outliers? What of those complicated disease entities like cancer, whose complexity and variability challenge even the best minds? How do we bang the round peg of cancer therapy into the square hole of formulaic care?

There are several answers. The first is the least attractive: In this scenario, predicated upon cancer’s incidence in an older population, at the end or beyond their productive (and reproductive) years, we simply don’t allocate resources. Most civilized modern societies haven’t the stomach for such draconian measures and will seek less blunt instruments.

The second is a middle of the road approach. In this scenario, standardized guidelines that provide the same treatment to every patient with a given diagnosis are developed. Every medical oncologist knows the drill: FOLFOX for every colon cancer, Cytoxan plus Docetaxel for every breast cancer and carboplatin plus paclitaxel for ovarian cancer. The treatments work adequately well, the schedules are well established, the toxicities are well known and no one is cured. The beauty of this approach is that the average patient has an average outcome with the average treatment. By encompassing these regimens into standardized algorithms, we may soon be able to eliminate physicians entirely — first, with nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants and, ultimately, with computers. What is perhaps most surprising about this scenario has been the willingness of the medical oncology community to embrace it, a sort of professional self-induced extinction. At the time of this writing, this is the predominant model and is becoming increasingly entrenched under the auspices of NCCN and related guidelines. The operative term being guidelines, in as much as these “guidelines” are rapidly becoming “dictates.”

The final approach, and the one I find most appealing, is that which utilizes the clinical, scientific, laboratory and technical acumen of the physician to the maximum. Combining diagnostic skill with scientific insight, the physician becomes the captain of the ship, who must assume control from the autopilot once the vessel has entered the tempest and use his/her experience and training to guide the patient to a soft landing. This requires the capacity to think and demands an up-to-date knowledge of many disciplines. The judicious application of laboratory-directed approaches can further enhance the skillset, introducing objective data that is then used to guide drug and treatment selections. Predicated upon an understanding of the patient’s tumor biology, cancer therapy becomes an intellectual exercise that draws upon literature, and a knowledge of pharmacology and physiology. Adding the wealth of newly developed signal inhibitors to the mix only enhances the odds of a good outcome.

This approach improves responses and eliminates futile care. It provides patients the opportunity to participate in their own management. Correctly delivered, it would make available to every patient any FDA-approved drug. While it would seem to some that this would open the floodgates of drug use, I would strenuously disagree. It would instead limit drug administration to those patients most likely to respond, a goal currently pursed by virtually every major institution, yet accomplished by none. While a handful of targeted approaches have come to fruition in the last few years — erlotinib for EGFR mutation, and sunitinib in kidney cancers — most of the molecular profiling being done today doesn’t aid in the selection of therapy but instead provides negative information (e.g. RAS in colon cancer, ERCC1 over expression in lung) enjoining the physician against the use of a given agent but then leaving the unfortunate patient to fend for themselves amidst a panoply of randomly chosen options.

This is the approach that I have chosen to adopt in my own care of cancer patients. Our rapidly growing successes in ovarian, breast, lung, melanoma, leukemias and other diseases could and should serve as a model for others.

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