Q&A: Drug costs and value in cancer


Skyrocketing drug costs are a key issue facing physicians, patients, and policymakers, but an even thornier problem may be determining a drug’s value.

Dr. Richard Schilsky, ASCO chief medical officer

Dr. Richard Schilsky

In this Q&A, Richard L. Schilsky, MD, senior vice president and chief medical officer at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), weighs in on the value proposition for cancer drugs and the implications for physicians.

Q: What tools exist for determining a drug’s value?

A: A number of organizations have developed tools to try to determine the value of cancer drug treatments. ASCO, the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO), the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network have all developed tools for this purpose.

Our tool, the ASCO Value Framework, assesses the value of new cancer drug treatments based on clinical benefit, side effects, and improvements in patient symptoms or quality of life in the context of cost. While it’s hard to directly compare frameworks – given differences in methodology and the many nuances of evaluating clinical trial results – in 2018, ASCO and ESMO published a joint analysis of our value frameworks in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (2018; 37[4]:336-49).

The analysis found that the frameworks produce comparable measures of the clinical benefits of new therapies in approximately two-thirds of the more than 100 treatment comparisons that were examined. It also identified a number of factors that may contribute to the discordant scores, revealing potential ways for both of our organizations to refine our frameworks in the future.

That said, ASCO’s Value Framework is just one part of our broader, multifaceted effort to achieve high-quality, high-value care for all patients with cancer. Other efforts include ASCO’s proposed Patient-Centered Oncology Payment model, the Choosing Wisely campaign to identify low-value clinical strategies, and CancerLinQ and the Quality Oncology Practice Initiative to implement quality measurement and improvement.

Q: How can the issues around drug price and value be addressed earlier in the context of clinical trials?

A: The definition of value ultimately comes down to the price that must be paid to achieve meaningfully improved health outcomes for individual patients or the broader population of affected individuals. Optimizing the value of a new cancer drug treatment begins with an innovation to address an unmet medical need, followed by defining and achieving clinically meaningful improvements in health outcomes through well-designed and efficiently conducted clinical trials. Effectiveness research is also essential to determining how well new treatments perform compared with available alternatives and how they perform in more diverse populations than those typically included in the clinical trials used to establish efficacy.

Patient goals, preferences, and choices shape the real-world experience of a new product, and the direct and indirect costs of a treatment to patients and their families significantly affect whether it is adopted widely. Until their value is clearly established, new and costly products should be deployed judiciously and after careful consideration of the goals of treatment, available options, and the unique needs, preferences, and goals of individual patients.

More research is needed to improve how we assess the value of new cancer drug treatments. New clinical efficacy endpoints – both provider- and patient-reported ones – that accurately describe how a patient feels and functions must be developed and should reflect outcomes of value to patients other than survival, particularly in noncurative settings.

Better predictive biomarkers can transform a drug of modest efficacy in an unselected population to one of high efficacy in a biomarker-defined subgroup and thereby contribute to improving the value of a treatment.

Regulatory and policy initiatives such as adaptive licensing, value-based insurance, and indication-specific pricing that affect marketing approval, reimbursement, or price, respectively, based on treatment effectiveness, also deserve careful consideration and further research to determine their effects on aligning cost with benefit while ensuring patient access to potentially life-extending therapies and continued innovation in drug development.


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