Notes on the news:
Much of the media last week breathlessly aired reports on a cancer study without noting some important points.
- The study, in the journal Health Affairs, suggested that higher cancer-care spending in this country is worth the price tag because U.S. patients who were diagnosed from 1983 to 1999 lived longer after the diagnosis than people in 10 European countries. The study estimated the value of those U.S. survival gains at $43 billion annually. This result was surprising because of the overwhelming number of studies concluding that the U.S. spends far more on healthcare than any other nation and gets mediocre results at best. Maybe all that spending was worth the extraordinary cost after all.
Unfortunately, the cancer study is based in large part on misleading mathematics. It relies on survival times versus mortality rates. A tumor diagnosed early may mean that one person survives a certain number of years after diagnosis but dies at the same age as another person whose illness was detected later. The length of life is the same.
“As long as your calculation is based on survival gains, it is fundamentally misleading,” said Dartmouth healthcare researcher Dr. H. Gilbert Welch. He was quoted in a lengthy Reuters news service story examining the study.