Should Doctors Worry About the Cost of Extending Life?

When insurance companies try to control costs by restricting access to treatments, they are rightly lambasted for it. Doctors who seek to determine which drugs are worth paying for are no better, the author writes. Stefan Wermuth/Reutesr

Oncologists are supposed to treat cancer patients. But some have decided instead to set themselves up as judges of what patients' lives are worth.

This type of bean-counting ought to be abhorrent to anyone who calls himself a physician.

A recent article in JAMA Oncology is emblematic of this strain of thinking. The piece employs a "value framework" endorsed by the American Society of Clinical Oncologists to determine what a new drug "should" cost. Once approved by the FDA, the drug in question, necitumumab, will be the first of its kind to treat stage IV squamous non-small-cell lung cancer.

The lead author of the article, Daniel Goldstein, noted that adding necitumumab to the standard combination of drugs for such patients "only" adds about two months to patients' life, on average. As a result, he calculates, necitumumab should cost $600 a month.

Put another way, Goldstein believes that each extra day of life is worth, at most, $20. About the same price as a new toaster.

Goldstein's morbid conclusion demonstrates the callousness of ASCO's value framework, which seeks to derive "appropriate" drug prices from their average effect on longevity. In the process, the framework marginalizes the value of life.

Goldstein notes that "[t]here is a desperate need to find appropriate prices for new treatments while maintaining incentives to drive game-changing innovations." Yet his approach would whittle away payments for the hardest to treat cancers and for patients who have had no real advances in care for decades.

Necitumumab is not just another drug. As Nick Thatcher, the lead investigator for the necitumumab clinical trials, observed: "I think it's important to remember we're dealing with squamous cell lung cancer," which has proved notoriously difficult to treat. "It's the first time," he notes, "that we've seen benefit in this group of patients over the last 20 or 25 years." In that context, demonstrating any effectiveness at all counts as a breakthrough.

History indicates that more profound breakthroughs will follow, as researchers build on each incremental advance. The first anti-AIDS treatments added "only" two months of life in 1987. By 2006, a combination of new drugs—tailored to the particular biology of the patients—added 15 years of life. The value framework doesn't account for increasing medical progress over time.

Moreover, the value framework does not measure the value of living longer from the patient perspective. The five-year survival rate for those diagnosed with this form and stage of lung cancer is 1 percent. Isn't every extra day with loved ones—and beating cancer—worth more than $20?

Goldstein's conclusion—that many oncology drugs in clinical practice in the United States would fare poorly in cost-effectiveness analyses—could be applied to lung cancer treatment prices as a whole.

Since 1973, the average survival generated by any type of chemotherapy is 1.7 months. The average cost of treating lung cancer patients in the last year of life is $94,000. Drugs are about 20 percent of that spending. Why not let people die 1.7 months sooner and save the money?

When insurance companies try to control costs by restricting access to treatments, they are rightly lambasted for it. Doctors who seek to determine which drugs are worth paying for are no better.

We would not countenance paying more to extend the life of a rich man than a poor one, whatever the difference in their economic "value." Nor would we deem the life of a mother of five more worth saving than that of a childless woman, without a family to mourn her passing. But it is no more acceptable to average the social value of their lives in deciding whether it's worth it to treat them.

A cynic, it is said, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. By this measure, ASCO's framework is cynical in the extreme. The only framework worth defending is one that says life is too precious to put a price on it.

Robert Goldberg is vice president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.

Related: The Cost of Extending a Life: A Riposte by Daniel A. Goldstein