Cardio-oncology booms but awareness lags


Cardio-oncology centers or community practice?

The rise of cardio-oncology, especially over the last decade or so, has given rise to a new academic niche, the cardio-oncology clinic. Starting from almost no programs a few years ago, by 2016 one tally put the total number of U.S. self-designated cardio-oncology centers at about 40 (Heart Fail Clin. 2017 April;13[2]:347-55), and that number undoubtedly grew even more during the year since. While these programs promote and advance the nascent subspecialty of cardio-oncology, and provide a foundation for development of formalized training programs, many experts see a clear hierarchy of risk that distinguishes the patients who should ideally be managed at these focused, multidisciplinary programs from the lower-risk patients who probably do fine under the care of just their oncologist or their oncologist in collaboration with a community cardiologist or primary care physician.

“The cardio-oncology community recognizes that it is nice to have programs at academic centers but it’s more important to deliver this care in the community,” said Dr. Lenihan. “Many cancer patients have no prior history of cardiovascular disease. These low-risk patients don’t necessarily need a cardio-oncologist. They may need to have their blood pressure managed more effectively or receive other preventive care, but that can certainly be done locally. There are low-risk patients who don’t need to go to a major center.” Dr. Lenihan and other cardio-oncologists see the majority of cancer patients as low risk when it comes to cardiovascular complications.

But it’s different when patients receive an anthracycline or an anthracycline plus trastuzumab. “This high-risk population is best seen at a cardio-oncology center.” Dr. Lenihan also included in this high-risk subgroup patients treated with mediastinal radiation, an option often used during the 1980s-2000s.

“Any time a patient receives treatment with the potential to cause a cardiovascular effect, which is pretty much any drug that now comes out, you need an accurate baseline assessment. But that doesn’t mean you need do anything different; you still treat the patient’s cancer. A thorough baseline assessment is a necessity, but it does not need to be done at a cardio-oncology center,” Dr. Lenihan said in an interview.

“For the vast majority of patients, care can be at community hospitals, similar to the delivery of the vast majority of oncology care. Some patients need referral to tertiary cardiology centers for advanced heart failure or to undergo advanced procedures, but that is a very small percentage of patients,” said Ana Barac, MD, director of the cardio-oncology program at the MedStar Heart Institute in Washington, and chair of the ACC’s Cardio-Oncology Section.

“Patients receiving more novel or unusual therapies, and those participating in trials” are appropriate for centers, while community care by a cardiologist and oncologist should suffice for more routine patients, said Dr. Fradley.

“Cardio-oncology centers are good for patients with type I damage from anthracycline treatment, especially patients who already had underlying heart disease,” said Michael S. Ewer, MD, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Specialist centers are also for patients with cardiovascular risk factors: older age, diabetes, preexisting coronary artery disease, and patients who receive cardiotoxic type I therapy (J Clin Oncol. 2005 May;23[13]:2900-2). Also, patients with a significant, immediate cardiac reaction to treatment, and those with an unexpected cardiac reaction, Dr. Ewer said.

A somewhat more expansive view of the typical cardio-oncology patient came from Dr. Neilan, based on the patients he sees at his program in Boston. Dr. Neilan estimated that roughly 60%-70% of his patients first present while they undergo active cancer treatment, with another 20% coming to the program as cancer survivors, and a small percentage of patients showing up for cardiology assessments and treatments without a cancer history. Among those with a cancer history, he guessed that perhaps 10%-20% were treated with an anthracycline, at least 10% received trastuzumab, and about 10% received radiation treatment. “I also see a lot of patients with complications from treatment” with tyrosine kinase inhibitors, VEGF inhibitors, and immunotherapies. “I don’t see a lot of patients for cardiovascular disease assessment before they start cancer therapy,” Dr. Neilan added.

Cardio-oncology heads toward a new cardiology subspecialty

These views of how cardio-oncology is practiced in the real world raise a question about the role of the growing roster of U.S. cardio-oncology programs. If most cancer patients can have their cardiology needs taken care of in the community, how do all the academic programs fit in? The answer seems to be that they model successful oncology and cardiology collaborations, provide a training ground for physicians from both specialties to learn how to collaborate, and serve as the home for research that broadens the field’s evidence base and moves knowledge forward.

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