Medical Professionals Begin to Weigh “Financial Toxicity” in the Balance for Cancer Patients

The interaction between health and money is well-established in America. Money does not necessarily imply perfect health, but rather that should a serious illness crop up, wealthy individuals have the resources to address it with the best treatments available. Of course, this approach is not possible for all Americans, and a series of recent studies have begun to investigate just what happens to patients when the cost of prescribed cancer treatment is out of reach.

A recent article published by NPR provides a number of truly stunning statistics, and I strongly encourage readers to give it a look. The research discussed in this piece shows that the financial strain of undergoing cancer treatment is becoming such a concern that doctors are beginning to consider the so-called “financial toxicity” of a treatment before suggesting it for a patient. This term is a relatively recent one, and is intended to convey that a particular treatment carries an associated financial danger that could potentially become life-threatening.

Many cancer treatments are not fully covered by insurers, leaving patients to spend many thousands of dollars out of pocket to cover these treatments. Sadly, many of these treatments are so expensive that “compared to other patients, those with cancer are more likely to leave prescriptions unfilled or delay filling prescriptions, skip medication doses to save money, ask doctors to prescribe cheaper drugs, or seek out alternatives to the regimens recommended by their oncologists”. Recent studies show that almost one in three non-elderly cancer patients are unable to follow their prescribed drug regimens because they are cannot to afford to do so.

Until recently, the eventual outcome of not following drug regimens could only be presumed given the severity of the condition, but “researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle report that cancer patients in Washington State are nearly three times more likely to declare bankruptcy than people without cancer.” This has led to the discussion of yet another layer of financial toxicity, something alarmingly referred to as fatal bankruptcy. The same researchers who uncovered the link between the likelihood to declare bankruptcy and cancer diagnoses also found that “cancer patients who filed for bankruptcy were 79 percent more likely to die than cancer patients who didn’t.”

Also of note, “The new findings cover the period between 2011 and 2014 — the first years of the Affordable Care Act. So they indicate that the expansion of health insurance coverage under the ACA has not yet provided an adequate safety net for many cancer patients.” With the current uncertainty about the future of healthcare in America, I urge readers to take a look at the NPR article linked above. It is more important than ever to examine the systems that are in place to protect vulnerable people, and to acknowledge where these systems are inadequate.

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