Oncologists Value Survival Over Quality of Life, Study Finds

For oncologists, drugs that help cancer patients live longer are worth more than drugs that help patients live well, researchers find.

For oncologists, drugs that help cancer patients live longer are worth more than drugs that help patients live well, according to research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and several health-related centers.

On average, oncologists were willing to prescribe treatments that cost about $245,000 to prolong life for one year, but the cost threshold dropped to about $119,000 per year for treatments that improve quality of life without prolonging patients' lives.

"Oncologists are understandably focused on survival, but they need to pay equal attention to the quality of life people experience during and after treatment," said senior author Peter Ubel, M.D., the John O. Blackburn professor of business administration at Fuqua.

The researchers found a wide range in what cancer doctors considered reasonable treatment costs. The threshold varied from $10,000 to $5 million per quality adjusted life year (QALY), a standard for assessing the cost-effectiveness of medical interventions. The spending thresholds assessed in the study were also measured in QALYs.

The research can be found on Medical Decision Making's website: http://bit.ly/fBIYBP.

The results highlight a critical problem in the struggle to control health care costs, Ubel said. Increasingly, doctors are being asked to consider whether very expensive cancer drugs -- some of which offer only small gains in survival -- are worth prescribing. But according to Ubel, the data on cost-effectiveness comes without guidelines for determining appropriate financial value in cancer care.

"Currently, individual oncologists are left to decide whether the benefits of expensive new drugs justify their costs," said Ubel. "Cancer care spending is unlikely to drop when there is such a broad range in what oncologists consider reasonable."

"The fact that these highly trained, wonderful doctors are confused about the issue suggests we as a society should discuss the cost of cancer care more explicitly. With health care spending emptying patients' pocketbooks, and bankrupting state and federal governments, we need to decide how much we should spend for small improvements in the quantity or quality of patients' lives."

The study results are based on a survey sent to members of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. The 768 physicians who responded considered two hypothetical scenarios involving a patient with metastatic cancer and a year to live.

The first scenario asked the doctor how much benefit, in months of survival gained, a new drug would need to provide for them to prescribe it. The new drug cost $75,000 more than standard treatment. The second scenario asked the doctor to indicate the highest cost at which they would prescribe a medication to improve the quality of life without prolonging survival.

The respondents consistently chose to spend more on life-prolonging treatments than on quality-enhancing treatments.

Additional authors of the study include Michael A. Kozminski and Aleksandra Jankovic of the Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine, University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Peter J. Neuman of the Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies, Tufts Medical Center in Boston; and Eric S. Nadler of the Charles Sammons Cancer Center, Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

The study was funded by grants from the California Healthcare Foundation and the Tufts Medical Center.