Affiliate cancer centers: What’s in a name?


Daniel Boffa, MD, was never able to shake the unfortunate incident from his mind. An acquaintance receiving cancer care at an affiliate center of a top-ranked cancer hospital had experienced a poor, and possibly preventable, outcome.

Dr. Daniel Boffa, thoracic surgeon at Yale Cancer Center

Dr. Daniel Boffa

“As I learned more about the outcome, it became clear to me that the affiliate wasn’t prepared to handle a complication that was not unexpected,” said Dr. Boffa, a thoracic surgeon at Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Conn. “When I talked to this individual and the people who helped make the decision for where care was going to be given, they kept saying over and over, ‘It says the name of a top-ranked hospital on the sign [of the affiliate], therefore it’s the same.’ ”

The incident compelled Dr. Boffa and colleagues to learn more about the safety at affiliate cancer centers. The result is an analysis that found that patients who underwent complex cancer surgery at affiliate hospitals were significantly more likely to die within 90 days, compared with patients receiving the same surgery at the flagship hospital. When the relative safety of each top-ranked cancer hospital was compared with its collective affiliates, the top-ranked hospital was safer than affiliates in 41 of 49 networks studied (JAMA Netw Open. 2019 Apr 12. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.1912).

The analysis illustrates that a patient’s chances of surviving a complex cancer surgery are markedly lower at affiliates, compared with the hospital whose brand it shares, Dr. Boffa explained.

“Every patient and everybody that is supporting a patient in making these [care] decisions can’t assume the care is the same,” he said. “This is not to say that the affiliates are unsafe, they are just less safe than the top-ranked hospitals.”

The findings come as more top-ranked cancer hospital align with affiliate cancer centers and grow partnerships with smaller, community hospitals.

Leaders at these institutions say the partnerships expand access to care and enable regional centers to draw from the expertise at specialized cancer hospitals. However, in addition to safety concerns, the recent data pose questions about whether marketing by some institutions is creating inaccurate perceptions about the relationship between top hospitals and their affiliates. At the same time, it’s uncertain whether network affiliations really improve cost or quality, said Lesly Dossett, MD, an oncologist and researcher at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Dr. Lesly Dossett of the Univesity of Michigan

Dr. Lesly Dossett

“Affiliation has the theoretical advantage of improving efficiency and quality across hospitals and facilitating regionalization of the most complex patients,” said Dr. Dossett, who wrote a commentary for JAMA on the subject. “An ideal network would provide the patient the most convenient access to the right specialist and service at the right time. Disadvantages are that patients and families can attribute quality and safety outcomes achieved at the flagship hospital to the smaller branded affiliate and decline to travel to the flagship, even though some services, like complex surgery, may be best delivered at the flagship.”


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