This is the fourth in a series of posts on Bending the Cost Curve in Cancer Care, by Drs. Thomas J. Smith and Bruce E. Hillner, in a recent NEJM health policy piece. The authors’ third suggestion: to limit chemotherapy to patients with good performance status, with an exception for highly responsive disease, is surely one of the most controversial.

What they’re suggesting is a simple rule: “Patients must be well enough to walk unaided into the clinic to receive chemotherapy.” There are necessary exceptions, they point out, such as cancer patients disabled by another medical condition but who otherwise can carry out daily activities with relative normalcy. (I’ll offer an example: say a 50-year woman with multiple sclerosis who is wheel-chair bound but otherwise essentially well; she would be a candidate for treatment in this scenario.) But in general the authors would hold off on chemotherapy for cancer patients with a limited performance status  – a measure that oncologists use to assess how well, or disabled, a person is in their capacity to work, perform ordinary daily activities and care for him or herself.

I’m not sure I agree with the “walking” threshold, or ECOG performance status 3 or below, as the authors describe: “meaning that they are capable of only limited self-care and are confined to a bed or chair more than 50% of waking hours.” These criteria are subjective and problematic. But I do think the authors are onto a central, unavoidable issue in reducing health care costs. That is by limiting care, i.e. by rationing.

For elderly patients with cancer, especially for those who have significant other illnesses, it may not be appropriate for doctors to give chemotherapy and other, non-palliative cancer treatments. The authors don’t (dare) advise a particular age cut-off for therapy; they suggest using performance status criteria. They conclude this section of the paper on cutting cancer care costs with this statement:  “Implementation of such a simple threshold could dramatically decrease the use of chemotherapy at the end of life.”

The authors are right, that we (oncologists and other doctors) shouldn’t be in the business of routinely giving aggressive treatments to patients who are very old and frail, who are more likely to suffer harms of treatment than potential benefits. Not just because we can’t continue driving up U.S. health care costs indiscriminately, but because when very frail, elderly patients are given chemotherapy they’re less likely to recover after treatment. By not saying “no” to patients who are too fragile for a requested intervention, or by simply treating patients who are so feeble or demented, or both, that they’re unable to say “no” for themselves – such as sometimes happens in nursing homes and other chronic care facilities, doctors may cause more harm than good.

Some readers of this blog may be wondering how I can reconcile this position with what I’ve said about access to Avastin for women with advanced BC. In my opinion, patients’ age and, broadly, their functionality – if they can think and communicate seems at least as relevant as whether they can walk – should be factored into the risk/potential benefits analysis of almost any medical treatment.

So if we’re going to consider restricting cancer drugs and interventions based on cost, indirectly or overtly, we should account for patients’ ages, the potential length and quality of life to be gained: If there’s a 50 year old patient who might benefit from a costly cancer treatment, it’s likely that person will benefit more from that drug than would a 70 year old patient, or a 90 year old patient. It’s also more likely, but not a sure thing, that a younger, otherwise healthier patient will tolerate a given treatment with fewer side effects.

Hard to know where and how to draw the lines.

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