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Symposium Looks at Curbing Costs of Cancer Care

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), whose wife, Judy, died four months after she was diagnosed with stomach cancer, remains hopeful that effective treatments will help improve patients' prognoses in the not-too-distant future.

December 5, 2011 – The escalating costs of cancer medicines – and how treatment can be made more cost-effective – was the main focus of a three-day Georgetown symposium.

“We need a new standard for new therapies – one that incorporates the magnitude of benefit and value,” said Dr. John Marshall, head of hematology and oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center and director of its Ruesch Center for the Cure of Gastrointestinal Cancers. “Evidence-based medicine does not equate with highly effective medicine.”

Lombardi and the Ruesch Center sponsored the symposium, “Fighting a Smarter War Against Cancer: Linking Policy to the Patient,” in collaboration with Georgetown’s Law Center and McDonough School of Business.

Organized by Marshall, the symposium convened national experts from government, regulatory agencies, private insurance industry, biotechnology companies, patient advocacy groups and practicing physicians.

Effectiveness vs. Treatments

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a 1966 alumnus of the Law Center, opened the symposium Dec. 1 at the McDonough School of Business’ Rafik Hariri Building.

Hoyer, who served for nearly 25 years on the National Institutes of Health’s labor subcommittee, said the federal government’s current budgetary crisis highlights the critical need to take a harder look at the value and effectiveness of cancer therapies.

He noted that his 57-year-old wife, Judy, died just four months after being diagnosed with stomach cancer and that both his mother and mother-in-law died of cancer.

Personal Experience

“As with many [gastrointestinal] cancers, stomach cancer is often rapid and fatal,” Hoyer said of his wife’s battle with the disease. “Even in our age of advanced medicine, effectively treating and curing [gastrointestinal] cancers remains difficult and elusive.”

But he said he remains hopeful that this deadly set of diseases may have improved prognoses in the not-too-distant future.

“Certain cancers that just 10 or 20 years ago were a death sentence are now treatable,” he said.

Investing in Science

Dr. Louis M. Weiner, Lombardi’s director, talked at the symposium about the importance of considering science when devising health care policy.

“Cancer care costs are rising,” Weiner said. “But the answer does not lie simply in the rationing of inferior care. Rather it is by investing in science, using it to inform treatment choices and forthrightly distinguishing between effectiveness and futility masquerading as progress.”

Philosophical Driver

Dr. David Kerr, who helped reform the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, delivered the Schafer Memorial Lecture, an endowed lectureship established by the family and friends of the late Thomas Schafer, who died of pancreatic cancer.

“Value will be the philosophical driver of 21st century health care,” Kerr said at the symposium.

Bright Light

The second day of the symposium, which focused on how to define value in cancer care, took place at the Law Center.

Dr. M. Gregg Bloche, law professor and author of The Hippocratic Myth: Why Doctors Are Under Pressure to Ration Care, Practice Politics, and Compromise Their Promise to Heal, opened the session.

“My hope is that today's conversation will shine a bright light ... on what we might do in the long term to make sure that medical costs are not the cause of our nation's ruin,” Bloche said.

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