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Bend The Cost Curve In Cancer Care: Reduce Excessive Surveillance Testing

This is the second in a series of posts on Bending the Cost Curve in Cancer Care. We should consider the proposal, published in the NEJM, gradually over the course of this summer, starting with “suggested changes in oncologists’ behavior,” #1:

1. Target surveillance testing or imaging to situations in which a benefit has been shown. This point concerns the costs of doctors routinely ordering CTs, MRIs and other imaging exams, besides blood tests, for patients who’ve completed a course of cancer treatment and are thought to be in remission.

The NEJM authors consider that after a cancer diagnosis many patients, understandably, seek reassurance that any recurrence will be detected early, if it happens. Doctors, for their part, may not fully appreciate the lack of benefit of detecting a liver met when it’s 2 cm rather than, say, just 1 cm in size. What’s more, physicians may have a conflict of interest, if they earn ancillary income by ordering lab and imaging tests.

My take:

It’s clear that some and possibly most cancer patients get too many and too frequent post-treatment surveillance tests. Believe it or not, yours truly, whose life was saved by a screening digital mammogram, maintains a healthy fear of excess radiation exposure. I agree to x-rays, CT scans, myelograms and whatever else my doctors suggest only when I’m reasonably confident that the test result would influence a treatment decision.

My impression is that, in general, oncologists’ habits of ordering routine, interval-based imaging for patients in remission after cancer treatment (such as a scan every 3 or 4 or 6 or 12 months) are arbitrary and unsupportable by any published data. These sorts of practices, which vary among communities, arise like this: A senior, smart and well-intentioned oncologist at a major teaching hospital, circa 1990, orders newfangled CT scans of the chest, abdomen and pelvis on his lymphoma patients every 4 months for two years, and then every 6 months for two years, and then every 12 months, for no reason other that he thinks it’s a good idea. The patients like it; they’re reassured, and he (the oncologist) feels good about having prescribed the drugs that caused their sustained remission. Talk about a positive feedback loop! (We needn’t even invoke financial incentives as a motivating force.) And then that’s just how it’s done by all the fellows he’s taught over the years, who then branch out into other communities and even other countries, and teach…

Why not?

Now, things may be changing a bit, as patients like me are starting to fear radiation exposure, and also are starting to question doctors’ recommendations more than they did even a few years ago. Younger doctors, too, have more requirements to continue their medical education in order to keep practicing at most hospitals and maintain their board certificates, and so they, too, may be more questioning of these archaic practices.

About post-treatment screening with scheduled blood work, I see this issue somewhat differently than do the NEJM authors, mainly in that I’m optimistic about simple blood tests, in the future, that may provide affordable and clinically relevant information to patients who’ve undergone treatment with tumors at high risk of recurrence.

As the authors point out, there are some old tests, such as CEA screening, that can be helpful in monitoring for recurrence in patients with a history of colon cancer. In general, blood tests are less dangerous and less expensive than imaging studies. Besides, in patients with aggressive tumors that might respond to new targeted drugs, tests that measure circulating tumor cells (CTCs) in small blood samples, and could assess cells for new mutations, at low costs in the future (not now), might render some blood tests useful and even cost-effective, in the future.

Finally, I’d like to throw in a concern I have about some clinical trials, in case any study designers or persuasive cancer IRB members happen to be reading this post:

Some of the clinical trials for new cancer drugs may require too many follow-up MRIs, CTs and other scans. Even if Pfizer or any other company foots the bill, by participating in the trials patients shouldn’t be subjected to excessive radiation or even just the unpleasantness and hassle of a said-to-be-safe test like an MRI. This pet peeve is especially concerning in some trials requiring multiple post-treatment PET scans, the most rad-intense of common imaging methods.

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*


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