Evidence Based Medicine and the Cost of Cancer Care

ASCO logoBefore I attended the ASCO meeting in Chicago, I penned a blog about a Forbes magazine article that described increasing restrictions placed on access to newer diagnostic tests for patients covered by Medicare.

Among the presentations that I attended at ASCO, (more to follow), was a study entitled “The cost per patient of deviations from evidence-based (EB) standards of oncology care.”  The presentation caught my eye as it addressed the cost of care associated with adherence to evidence-based guidelines versus treatment plans that varied from these guidelines. Utilizing a database developed to analyze the cost of treatment, these investigators explored costs incurred when physicians used treatments that were not within the confines of the evidence-based formulae.

A total of 2,775 consecutive patients had their treatment plans (TPS) submitted and 730 (26 percent) of these patients were described as receiving, “unjustified, non-Evidence Based Treatment Plans.” The authors then examined the costs associated with these treatments. Their phraseology for treatment that varied from guidelines was those “that did not confirm to Evidence Based standards or could not be medically justified.” Apparently the practice on the part of qualified, skilled oncologists of making drug choices that vary from evidence-based medicine is synonymous with “not being medically justified.” Their conclusion “conservative estimate(s) of the average per patient overspend (first order) on inappropriate treatment validates the potential for quality care to lower cost and deliver huge value to patients, physicians and payors.”

What’s wrong with this picture?

First, clinical oncology as it is practiced today through the available guidelines (NCCN, etc.) has failed to improve 5-year survival for advanced cancer in 50 years. Thus, this “regression to the mean” thinking, if followed, would increasingly demand that medical oncologists scrupulously adhere to largely ineffective therapy guidelines.

The second problem is that this analysis provides no data on response, time to progression, survival or toxicity. For all we know, the 26 percent of patients who received non-evidence based treatment plans may have been the best responders with better survivals and lower toxicities.

Finally, in keeping with the Forbes article previously described, medical oncologists are rapidly abdicating control of their cancer patients’ treatments in favor of econometric analyses.  Should this trend continue, patients may soon be forgoing the opinions of their MDs, in favor or the opinions of  MBAs.

The Tyranny of Medical Experts

Over the last several years a number of decisions have been handed down from medical experts, I use the term “handed down” advisedly. Like the Olympian Gods or appellate court judges, these dictates are provided to the unsuspecting medical public as fiats. Among these are the roles of mammograms for women under 50 (not recommended), PSA screening for men (not recommended), and a variety of determinations that seem to many counterintuitive. In the past, similar recommendations have been handed down regarding a series of “unnecessary” tests, the cessation of which could save millions of dollars annually.

These topics were the subject of a recent article by Drs. Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman, members of the faculty at Harvard Medical School. Published in the Saturday, March 31, 2012, Wall Street Journal, their article “Rise of the Medical Expertocracy,” focuses on the new paternalism that has come to define “Best Practices” in the healthcare. What most concerns these authors is the transition from physicians as experts, to governmental entities as experts. With this new bureaucracy comes an entirely new industry dedicated to the generation of medical metrics designed to provide doctors and hospitals report cards on their performance. Like evidence-based medicine, yesterday’s catchphrase for improving treatments, “Best Practices” are now being forced upon practitioners.

Where the purveyors of these approaches have gone wrong, is their misguided attempt to apply average treatments to average patients with the expectation of average outcomes. Despite the appeal of simplified treatment algorithms, there are no average patients and it follows that there are no average outcomes.

In a recent presentation at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting held in Chicago March 31 – April 4, 2012, one of the presenters at the melanoma session described whole genome sequencing on 21 human melanomas. To their chagrin they found 21 completely different phosphoprotein signatures. From the macroscopic to the most microscopic mankind in general and his tumors in particular, distinguish themselves for their unique attributes.

The theme of Drs. Hartzband and Groopman’s article echoes loudly in our study of cancer patients. We will only succeed in saving money and saving lives when we stop banging round pegs into square holes and get down to the challenging, but very doable work of matching each individual to their best treatment option – truly personalized medicine.

“Big Box” American Medicine

Over the last several months we have been engaged in construction work on our home. The kitchen and adjoining rooms required new floors. To accomplish this goal, we went online and examined the types of floors, patterns and qualities that met our needs. We shopped at various venues including small privately-owned flooring shops and larger national chains. The one-stop-shopping aspect of the larger chains (cabinetry, flooring, carpets, appliances, etc. all under one roof) had a certain appeal. After considering our options we proceeded with one of the chain stores. Although we greatly appreciated and respected the expertise of the consultant who worked with the big box store, the results proved less satisfactory.

First, we needed our space measured. The big box store contracted with a group who did their flooring measurements. Second, we needed to purchase the material. This was done through the large concern acting as our purchasing agent. Finally, after the several weeks delay for the “special order materials,” our flooring material was delivered to yet a third party, the flooring installation experts.

Despite the delays, everything was moving along reasonably well. And then came the problem. Our contractor had needed to resurface a section of our entranceway. This left a gap from the bare wood up to the existing surface that was about to be recovered by the installation staff. We contacted the installation group the night before their scheduled   arrival to explain that they would need to match the new surface level with that of the old one. And then the wheels came off.

“We can’t do this job for a fear that there could be a need for asbestos remediation.”

“What asbestos?” I responded.

Their response, “We don’t know, but it’s a possibility.”

“Well then, come out and take a look.”

“Oh, no, we can’t do that, it will be at least a week.”

I felt stymied. Our carefully scheduled flooring, followed by appliance replacement, followed by painting, followed by cabinetry installation was now on indefinite hold. Luckily, I had a personal contact with a privately-owned flooring company who provided their own installers. They arrived the next day, examined the situation and explained that there was no asbestos risk whatsoever. They neatly matched the floor levels using a plywood sheet and proceeded to perfectly complete the flooring job.

After all was said and done, I suddenly realized that I had almost double the flooring material I actually needed. After much discussion, we convinced the big box store to accept the excess material in return and to compensate us for the difference.

So what’s this got to do with medicine? Quite a lot I would suggest.

Like the big box stores, American medicine is migrating towards generic care with each function contracted out to a different entity. The internist who diagnoses the problem is then forced to refer the patient to an outside contracted diagnostic service provider (i.e. radiology, CT, MRI). Results then slowly percolate back to the primary care physician who, one or two weeks later, recognizes the problem and recommends hospital admission. At this point a contracted hospitalist starts all over again, examining the patient and taking a detailed history in an attempt to uncover that, which the internist already knew. With the best data the hospitalist can accumulate, he then turns again to a contracted provider for a final intervention. The patient all the while has waited weeks, undergone numerous  interventions and investigations and more often than not gets more, or in some circumstance less, than what they really needed.

As we continue to undervalue the abilities and expertise of individual private physicians functioning as quarterbacks in patient management, we abdicate the management of a patient’s delicate problems to the intersecting tectonic plates of medical systems: HMO, PPO, VHA, Medicare, HHS, AARP, etc., etc., etc.

Like the big box stores that adequately meet the average needs of the average customer with an average problem, these medical behemoths lack the insight to meet individual patient needs. Duplication of services and inefficiency are the inevitable result. In retrospect I would gladly have paid a slightly higher fee for a privately owned concern to have measured, purchased and installed my kitchen floor. The savings associated with big box stores, are like those associated with HMO care . . . nonexistent.

So long as you are 42 ½ years old, have a viral respiratory infection and don’t have any allergies or prior medical history, HMOs provide great care. For everyone else,  Caveat Emptor!

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.

Ovarian Cancer National Alliance 2011

The July meeting of the OCNA included a lecture by John Hays, MD, from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), entitled “Decision time: what is the right choice of chemotherapeutic agent(s)? Dr. Hays, part of the molecular signaling section at the NCI, reviewed literature on the topic. He described the need for prospective clinical trials to validate retrospective and in vitro results.

He then examined data from three technologies, the Oncotech extreme drug resistance test, Precision Therapeutics ChemoFX test and the ATP-based chemosensitivity test.

I found it odd that Dr. Dr. Hays spent time examining the EDR technology of Oncotech in as much as it is no longer offered and reflects proliferation-based studies, which have since largely been discredited.

The ATP assay was reviewed using the results of a study published by Dr. Ian Cree in which 180 patients received either assay-directed (ATP) or physician choice. This study actually provided an improvement for patients who received the ATP-based treatment but failed to achieve significance. Thus, it failed largely because it was underpowered.

But this reflected a more concerning aspect of the study.  It seems that the “physician choice” arm increasingly applied the best drug regimens developed in Dr. Cree’s own laboratory. As the trial continued to accrue, an increasing proportion of patients received Gemcitabine-based doublets (which were very new at the time) based upon Dr. Cree’s observation of activity for these novel combinations. This had the uncomfortable effect of forcing Dr. Cree to compete with himself. Had Dr. Hays been truly interested in examining this study as I have, he might have noticed the good control group response rate partly reflected the application of Dr. Cree’s’ own observations.

Indeed, when during my many attempts to conduct a prospective study with the GOG, I was at the very last moment confronted with a study design similar to Dr. Cree’s, (e.g. they could incorporate any treatment they chose, including those that I developed), my statistician demanded that I forego the pleasure, as he could see only too well that the trial had become impossible to power. You see, there was no true control arm for statistical comparison.

The final portion of Dr. Hays’ presentation was the ChemoFX assay. This technology propagates tissue biopsies to confluence and then conducts measurement of drug-induced cell death. With substantial funding largely provided by venture capital, Precision Therapeutics has leapt into the GOG with a series of trials. Should this hybrid technology fail to provide prospective results that meet significance, it will be a damaging blow to this unfairly maligned area of investigation. While I wish the ChemoFX investigators luck, a failure on their part could be harmful to the field. Their reliance on propagated, sub-cultured tissues grown to monoculture has been a concern to me since they first arose in the last few years as participants in the field. We await the results of their trials with great anticipation.

What is interesting in Dr. Hays’ review is not so much what he said, but what he didn’t say.

First, he did not mention the seminal work of Dr. Larry Weisenthal, a pioneer in the field.

Second, he did not describe the nearly 2,000 retrospective, yet statistically significant correlations in the literature in a wide variety of diseases. He neglected to mention that one of the most widely used regimens for breast and ovarian cancer was developed using the same human tumor culture analyses that he decries. If he actually treats patients, he no doubt uses the cisplatin gemcitabine doublets developed using one of these platforms.

Finally, Dr. Hays has failed evidence-based medicine 101. He has forgotten that in life-threatening illnesses where prospective clinical trial data is not available, in accordance with the dictates of evidence-based medicine, one should use the best available data to guide treatments.

There is a wealth of data supporting laboratory based drug selection.  Presentations like that described do not add to the discourse.