Best Practices

Mohs Micrographic Surgery in the VHA

Veterans with skin cancer have seen improved access to Mohs micrographic surgery over the past 10 years, yet the challenges of travel distance and care coordination remain.

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Skin cancer is one of the most prevalent conditions among VHA patients.1 One of the largest U.S. health care systems, the VHA serves more than 9 million veterans.2 In 2012, 4% of VHA patients had a diagnosis of keratinocyte carcinoma or actinic keratosis; 49,229 cases of basal cell carcinoma and 26,310 cases of squamous cell carcinoma were diagnosed.1 With an aging veteran population and the incidence of skin cancers expected to increase, the development of cost-effective ways to provide easily accessible skin cancer treatments has become a priority for the VHA.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines recommend 3 types of surgical treatment for localized keratinocyte carcinoma: local destruction, wide local excision (WLE), and Mohs micrographic surgery (MMS). Tumors at low risk for recurrence may be treated with local destruction or WLE, and tumors at high risk may be treated with WLE or MMS.3

Mohs micrographic surgery involves staged narrow-margin excision with intraoperative tumor mapping and complete circumferential peripheral and deep margin assessment (CCPDMA). With the Mohs surgeon acting as both surgeon and dermatopathologist, it is possible to provide intraoperative correlation with the tissue bed and immediate additional margin resection precisely where needed. Relative to WLE, MMS yields improved histopathologic clearance rates and lower 5-year recurrence rates. It also provides improved preservation of normal tissue, optimized aesthetic outcomes, and high patient satisfaction.4-7 All this is achieved in an outpatient setting with the patient under local anesthesia; therefore the cost of ambulatory surgical centers or hospital operating rooms are avoided.5,8,9

The NCCN recommends WLE for high-risk tumors only if CCPDMA can be achieved. However, CCPDMA requires specialized surgical technique, tissue orientation, and pathology and is not equivalent to standard WLE with routine surgical pathology. Even with intraoperative bread-loafed frozen section analysis, WLE does not achieve the 100% margin assessment obtained with MMS.

In 2012, the American Academy of Dermatology in collaboration with the American College of Mohs Surgery, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, and the American Society for Mohs Surgery developed the Mohs Appropriate Use Criteria,which are now widely used as part of the standard of care to determine which cases of skin cancer should be treated with MMS over other modalities.10 These criteria, which are based on both evidence and expert consensus, take into account tumor size, histology, location, and patient factors, such as immunosuppression.

Despite its established benefits, MMS has not been uniformly accessible to veterans seeking VHA care. In 2007, Karen and colleagues surveyed dermatology chiefs and staff dermatologists from 101 VHA hospitals to characterize veterans’ access to MMS and found MMS available at only 11 VHA sites in 9 states.11 Further, access within the VHA was not evenly distributed across the U.S.

The VHA often makes payments, under “non-VA medical care” or “fee-basis care,” to providers in the community for services that the VHA is otherwise unable to provide. In 2014, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act and established the Veterans Choice program.2,12 This program allows veterans to obtain medical services from providers outside the VHA, based on veteran wait time and place of residence.12 The goal is to improve access. The present authors distinguish between 2 types of care: there are fee-based referrals managed and tracked by the VHA physician and the Veterans Choice for care without the diagnosing physician involvement or knowledge. In addition to expanding treatment options, the act called for reform within the VHA to improve resources and infrastructure needed to provide the best care for the veteran patient population.2

The authors conducted a study to identify current availability of MMS within the VHA and to provide a 10-year update to the survey findings of Karen and colleagues.11 VHA facilities that offer MMS were surveyed to determine available resources and what is needed to provide MMS within the VHA. Also surveyed were VHA facilities that do not offer MMS to determine how VHA patients with skin cancer receive surgical care from non-VA providers or from other surgical specialties.

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This study, deemed exempt from review by the University of California San Francisco Institutional Review Board, was a survey of dermatology section and service chiefs across the VHA. Subjects were identified through conference calls with VHA dermatologists, searches of individual VHA websites, and requests on dermatology e-mail listservs and were invited by email to participate in the survey.

The Research Electronic Data Capture platform (REDCap; Vanderbilt University Medical Center) was used for survey creation, implementation, dissemination, and data storage. The survey had 6 sections: site information; MMS availability; Mohs surgeon, Mohs laboratory, and support staff; MMS care; patient referral; and Mohs surgeon recruitment.

Data were collected between June 20 and August 1, 2016. Collected VHA site information included name, location, description, and MMS availability. If MMS was available, data were collected on surgeon training and background, number of MMS cases in 2015, and facility and support staff. In addition, subjects rated statements about various aspects of care provided (eg, patient wait time, patient distance traveled) on a 6-point Likert scale: strongly disagree, moderately disagree, slightly disagree, slightly agree, moderately agree, or strongly agree. This section included both positive and negative statements.

If MMS was not available at the VHA site, data were collected on patient referrals, including location within or outside the VHA and patient use of the Veterans Choice program. Subjects also rated positive and negative statements about referral experiences on a Likert scale (eg, patient wait time, patient distance traveled).

Categorical data were summarized, means and standard deviations were calculated for nominal data, and data analysis was performed with Microsoft Excel (Redmond, WA).


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