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Many cancer survivors change their prescription drug use for financial reasons

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A new analysis indicates that many cancer survivors change their prescription drug use (including skipping doses or requesting cheaper medications) for financial reasons. Published early online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society, the study provides important information on the financial burden experienced by cancer survivors, suggesting non-elderly cancer survivors are particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon.

Although research has shown that cancer drugs can represent considerable costs for cancer patients and their families, there is limited information about changes in prescription drug use for financial reasons among cancer survivors. To further investigate this, researchers from the American Cancer Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health used 2011-2014 data from the National Health Interview Survey, an annual household interview survey conducted by the CDC. This nationally representative survey included 8931 cancer survivors and 126,287 individuals without a cancer history.

Among non-elderly adults, 31.6 percent of those who had been recently diagnosed and 27.9 percent of those who had been previously diagnosed (at least two years earlier) reported a change in prescription drug use for financial reasons, compared with 21.4 percent of adults without a history of cancer. “Specifically, non-elderly cancer survivors were more likely to skip medication, delay filling a prescription, ask their doctor for lower-cost medication, and use alternative therapies for financial reasons compared with non-elderly individuals without a cancer history,” said the American Cancer Society’s Ahmedin Jemal, DVM, PhD, a senior author of the paper. The study also showed that among privately insured non-elderly cancer survivors, one-third of survivors enrolled in high-deductible plans asked their doctor for lower-cost medications compared with less than one-fifth of survivors enrolled in low-deductible plans.

Changes in prescription drug use for financial reasons were generally similar between elderly cancer survivors and elderly individuals without a cancer history. This is likely because of uniform healthcare coverage through Medicare.

The findings may have significant policy implications. “Healthcare reforms addressing the financial burden of cancer among survivors, including the escalating cost of prescription drugs, should consider multiple comorbid conditions and high-deductible health plans, and the working poor,” said Dr. Jemal. “Our findings also have implications for doctor and patient communication about the financial burden of cancer when making treatment decisions, especially on the use of certain drugs that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars but with very small benefit compared with alternative and more affordable drugs.”

In an accompanying editorial addressing the financial toxicity of cancer, Daniel Goldstein, MD, of the Rabin Medical Center in Israel and Emory University, stressed the need to avoid unnecessary testing and treatments. He added that “when two different treatments exist with equivalent efficacy and safety, the cheaper treatment should always be chosen.”

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