About half of medical oncologists – and even fewer surgeons and radiation oncologists – have someone in their practice to discuss the financial implications of treating breast cancer, a physician-patient survey has found.
Patients are feeling that lack of service, too; 73% of women in the survey said their providers didn’t offer much, or even any, help in tackling the potentially devastating financial impact of their cancer. Women reported a variety of these issues, including increased debt, lost time at work, skimping on their food budget, and even losing their homes as the medical bills added up.
“The privations observed in the current study are sobering and consistent with studies published before the widespread awareness of the potential for financial toxicity after the diagnosis and treatment of cancer,” wroteand coauthors. The report was published in Cancer.
“… Unfortunately, unmet needs for discussion persist, as does unresolved worry. The percentage of patients who perceive meaningful clinician engagement is low, with far fewer than one-quarter of respondents reporting more than a little discussion of these issues, which is strikingly lower than the percentage of providers who perceive routinely making services available,” they wrote.
Dr. Jagsi, of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and her colleagues used the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database to identify 2,502 women in Georgia and Los Angeles County who were diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer from 2013 to 2015. They contacted these women, who were at least 1 year out from diagnosis, and their oncology providers with a survey designed to determine how both groups communicated about financial issues, and how those issues affected patients’ day-to-day lives.
Most of the clinicians were surgeons (370); the rest were medical oncologists (306) or radiation oncologists (169). About a quarter of each group was in a teaching practice.
Among the medical oncologists, 50.9% reported that someone in their practice often or always discussed financial burden with patients, as did 15.6% of surgeons and 43.2% of radiation oncologists. Medical oncologists were also more likely to respond that they were very aware of out-of-pocket costs for patients, as did 27.3% of surgeons and 34.3% of radiation oncologists.
About 57% of medical oncologists thought it was quite or extremely important to save their patients money; 35.3% of surgeons and 55.8% of radiation oncologists also responded so.
Many women reported at least some measure of financial toxicity related to their cancer and its treatment, and this varied widely by ethnicity and race. Debt was common, noted by 58.9% of black patients, 33.5% of Latina patients, and about 28% of both white and Asian patients.
“Many patients also had substantial lost income and out-of-pocket expenses that they attributed to breast cancer,” the authors wrote. “Overall, 14% of patients reported lost income that was [at least] 10% of their household income, 17% of patients reported spending [at least] 10% of household income on out-of-pocket medical expenses, and 7% of patients reported spending [at least] 10% of household income on out-of-pocket nonmedical expenses.
Housing loss attributed to breast cancer was most common among blacks (6%) and Latinas (4.7%), and less so among whites and Asians (about 1% each).
Blacks and Latinas also were more likely to report a utility disconnection due to unpaid bills (5.9% and 3.2%, respectively) compared with whites and Asians (1.7% and 0.5%).
One way women financially coped, the survey found, was to cut the food budget. “One in five whites [21.5%] and Asians [22.5%] cut down spending on food, as did nearly one-half of black individuals [45.2%] and greater than one-third of Latinas [35.8%].”
Worry about finances was most common among blacks and Latinas (about 50%), but about a third of white and Asian women also reported worry. Survey results suggested that clinicians were not addressing these issues.
Women – especially nonwhite women – wanted to have these talks, with 15.2% of whites, 31.1% of blacks, 30.3% of Latinas, and 25.4% of Asians reporting this desire.
“Unmet patient needs for engagement with physicians regarding financial concerns were common. Of the 945 women who expressed worrying at least somewhat, 679 (72.8%) indicated that cancer physicians and their staff did not help at least somewhat,” the authors said.
More than half of the 523 women who expressed a desire to talk to health care providers regarding the impact of breast cancer on employment or finances (55.4%) reported that this discussion never took place, either with the oncologist, primary care provider, social worker, or any other professional involved in their care.
A multivariate analysis examined patient characteristics associated with the desire to discuss financial toxicity with a health care provider. Younger age, nonwhite race, lower income, being employed, receiving chemotherapy, and living in Georgia all showed significant, independent interaction.
“Given these findings, it is clear that thoughtfully designed, prospective interventions are necessary to address the remarkably common experiences of financial burden that patients report even in the modern era,” the investigators wrote. “These interventions might include training for physicians and their staff regarding how to have effective conversations in this context, in ways that are sensitive to cultural differences and needs. Other promising approaches might include the use of advanced technology to engage patients in interactive exercises that elicit their financial concerns and experiences and alert providers to their needs.”
The study was largely funded by a grant from the National Cancer Institute and the University of Michigan. Dr. Jagsi disclosed that she has been a consultant for Amgen but not relative to this study.
SOURCE: Jagsi R et al. Cancer 2018 Jul 23. doi: 10.1002/cncr.31532.