Conference Coverage

End-of-life aggressive cancer care continues despite recommendations




CHICAGO – Aggressive care for most patients with incurable solid tumors continued in the final 30 days of life, and one-third died in the hospital, a recent, large retrospective study of health claims data on more than 28,000 patients shows, and there was no decrease in this practice over a recent 7-year period, despite recommendations to the contrary.

“Aggressive medical care for patients with incurable cancers at the end of life is widely recognized to be harmful to patients and their families,” Dr. Ronald Chen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Dr. Ronald Chen

Dr. Ronald Chen

As part of the Choosing Wisely campaign in 2012, the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s first recommendation was not to use cancer-directed therapy for patients with solid tumors when there is no strong evidence supporting the clinical value of further anticancer treatment. It also recommended more use of palliative and supportive care. However, the impact of these recommendations on clinical care in younger cancer populations was unknown.

In a study of patients younger than 65 years with solid tumors who died in 2007-2014, Dr. Chen and his associates studied the use of several items that could be considered to be aggressive therapy. They included chemotherapy, radiotherapy, invasive procedures, emergency room visits, hospitalization, intensive care use, and in-hospital death. Patients had any of five common metastatic diseases: breast, lung, prostate, colorectal, or pancreatic cancers (n = 5,855; 12,764; 1,508; 5,207; 3,397, respectively).

The source material for the study was large commercial insurance claims data on patients across 14 states. Investigators evaluated the proportion of patients who received forms of aggressive care in the final 30 days of life.

“Overall, the findings are remarkably consistent across the five diseases. And overall, about three-quarters of patients received at least one form of aggressive care in the last 30 days of life,” Dr. Chen said (range, 71.2%-75.9% of patients). Almost two-thirds of patients (61.6%-65.1%) were admitted to the hospital or went to the emergency department, about 20% of patients (15.9%-20.6%) received intensive care, and one-third of patients (30.3%-35.4%) died in the hospital instead of at home. About 25%-30% of patients received chemotherapy or an invasive procedure, such as a biopsy or a form of surgery. Radiation therapy was used the least and was administered to about 5%-20% of patients.

Looking at the overall use of aggressive care for each of the cancers studied, the researchers found virtually no trend over time, that is, from the second quarter of 2012, when ASCO issued its Choosing Wisely guidelines, through the fourth quarter of 2014. For each of the cancers, aggressive care was delivered to just about 75% of patients across all quarters. Looking further back, the investigators found the same proportions of patients receiving aggressive care in the last 30 days of life during the years 2007-2011.

They also looked specifically at the use of chemotherapy and did not find a change after the Choosing Wisely recommendations, “nor did we find a significant increase in the use of hospice from before 2012 to afterward,” Dr. Chen said. “Additional efforts are critically needed to improve end-of-life care for patients with terminal cancers to ensure that the care provided meets the goals and preferences of patients and their families.” Fewer than one-fifth of patients used hospice care.

Press conference moderator Dr. Patricia Ganz, director of cancer prevention and control research at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center of the University of California, Los Angeles, called the study “interesting and important for several reasons.” First, there have been very few studies on the topic on the younger (up to age 65) cancer population although the SEER-Medicare database has been used as a source of claims data for older cancer patients. One may like to know if the younger population is being treated more aggressively than the older population is, as well as other patterns of care.

“Giving chemotherapy in the last 30 days of life has been a coping measure for a very long time,” she said. “It’s been nationally looked at as one of our failures in giving good end-of-life care, and so the fact that there wasn’t any dramatic change at 2012 doesn’t bother me in the sense that we’ve been talking about this for a very long time, and we haven’t seen any movement.” She said there is a lot left to do in delivering high quality end-of-life care.

Dr. Chen said more education of both patients and physicians is needed to improve conversations about goals and expectations, as well as palliative care and hospice. These types of care need to be made more accessible, he said.


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