The law of unintended consequences


In this edition of “How I will treat my next patient,” I focus on a recent presentation at the American Society for Radiation Oncology meeting regarding the association of recent closures in women’s health clinics with cervical cancer outcomes and on a publication regarding guideline-concordant radiation exposure and organizational characteristics of lung cancer screening programs.

Cervical cancer screening and outcomes

Between 2010 and 2013, nearly 100 women’s health clinics closed in the United States because of a variety of factors, including concerns by state legislatures about reproductive services. Amar J. Srivastava, MD, and colleagues, performed a database search to determine the effect of closures on cervical cancer screening, stage, and mortality (ASTRO 2019, Abstract 202). The researchers used the Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance Study, which provided data from 197,143 cases, to assess differences in screening availability in 2008-2009 (before the closures). They used the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) registry data from 2014-2015 (after) on 10,652 patients to compare stage at diagnosis and disease-specific mortality in states with women’s health clinic closures and states without closures.

They found that the cervical cancer screening rate in states that had a decline in the number of women’s health clinics was 1.63% lower than in states that did not lose clinics. The disparity was greater in medically underserved subgroups: Hispanic women, women aged 21-34 years, unmarried women, and uninsured women.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss has been a community-based medical oncologist and clinical researcher for more than 35 years, practicing in St. Louis.

Dr. Alan P. Lyss

Early-stage diagnosis was also significantly less common in states that had a decreased number of women’s health clinics – a 13.2% drop – and the overall mortality rate from cervical cancer was 36% higher. The difference was even higher (40%) when comparing only metro residents. All of these differences between states with and without closures were statistically significant.

How these results influence clinical practice

The law of unintended consequences is that the actions of people, and especially of governments, will have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. All oncologists understand this law – we live it every day.

The data generated by Dr. Srivastava and colleagues bring to mind two presentations at the 2019 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology: the impact of Medicaid Expansion on racial disparities in time to cancer treatment (LBA 1) and the impact of the Affordable Care Act on early-stage diagnosis and treatment for women with ovarian cancer (LBA 5563). Collectively, they remind us that health care policy changes influence the timeliness of cancer care delivery and disparities in cancer care. Of course, these analyses describe associations, not necessarily causation. Large databases have quality and completeness limitations. Nonetheless, these abstracts and the associated presentations and discussions support the concept that improved access can be associated with improved cancer care outcomes.

In 1936, American sociologist Robert K. Merton described “imperious immediacy of interest,” referring to instances in which an individual wants the intended consequence of an action so badly that he or she purposefully chooses to ignore unintended effects. As a clinical and research community, we are obliged to highlight those effects when they influence our patients’ suffering.


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