Bioethics Blogs

Cancer Drugs Aren’t As Cost-Effective As They Used To Be

Cancer drugs have become increasingly expensive in recent years. No one blinks anymore when a new lung cancer or colon cancer treatment comes to market priced at more than $100,000 per patient. In part, we don’t blink because we have simply gotten used to such prices – the shock has worn off. Moreover, many of these new treatments are targeted therapies that only work for patients whose cancers express specific mutations, targeting the specific genetics underlying their neoplasms. Because these treatments are targeted, we know that only a subset of patients will receive them, thereby limiting the overall cost of the therapies. We are willing to give pharmaceutical companies some leeway in pricing these drugs, because we recognize that such targeted therapies limit the pool of patients pharmaceutical companies can count on to recoup their investments. In fact, due to such precision targeting, we even hope that the new treatments will be so much more effective against cancers they will justify their high prices.

Unfortunately, a study by David H. Howard and colleagues shows that new cancer treatments, on average, are less cost-effective than older ones.  The price of cancer drugs is rising faster than the effectiveness.

In the simplest terms, cost-effectiveness quantifies the ratio between how much an intervention raises healthcare costs and how much it improves health outcomes. For advanced cancers, one important outcome is whether the treatment increases patient survival. A $100,000 treatment that increases life expectancy by an average of, say, six months would have a cost-effectiveness of around $200,000 per life year.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.