Cancer is one of the most expensive conditions to treat worldwide. Financial stress and hardship after a cancer diagnosis is a well-documented fact in the U.S. Cancer patients spend more out-of-pocket for medical care and treatment than their counterparts without cancer, adding to their financial hardship. In addition to leaving patients and their families with debt and potential bankruptcy, these financial stressors also compound negative physical health effects.

Despite this, screening for financial hardships is not currently a part of clinical practice, and discussions around patient financial stressors occur infrequently in clinics. To address these challenges, screening for financial hardship after a diagnosis should be introduced to improve cancer patients’ quality of life during treatment and survivorship.

The Financial Burden of Cancer Patients and Survivors

 Dr. Robin Yabroff of the American Cancer Society said in an interview that cancer survivors experience consistent financial stress related to their diagnosis and post-treatment—40% of Americans cannot afford an unexpected expense over $400. In fact, over 50% of cancer survivors report being stressed about paying high medical bills or have delayed medical care due to high costs. Given that financial burden is strongly correlated with gap in insurance programs, unsurprisingly cancer survivors aged between 18-64 are more likely to experience financial stress relative to non-cancer survivors. With many new drugs and medical devices priced at $100,000 or higher, financial hardship has increased exponentially for cancer patients. Moreover, health insurers are constantly shifting care costs to patients by introducing higher deductibles, copayments, and coinsurance. To top all of this, a cancer diagnosis indefinitely and negatively impacts employment, resulting in loss of income and employment-sponsored health insurances in some cases.

Consequently, patients with cancer and their families experience ‘financial toxicity’, a term associated with hardships with paying medical expenses, psychological stress about affording to pay, and delaying or forgoing medical care due to costs. A recent study co-authored by Dr. Yabroff and Dr. Yousuf Zafar in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, highlights three main factors contributing to financial hardship as the rising cost of cancer treatments:

  • Increase in patient eligibility to treatment concurrent with expanding treatment options
  • Increase in duration of said treatment
  • Changing health-insurance design, which has shifted costs on patients

In addition, newer radiation and surgical oncology treatments are expensive. A simultaneous rise in the number of uninsured and underinsured patients and an increased prevalence of high-deductible and copayment health insurance options complicate matters.

Need for Financial Hardship Screening After Cancer Diagnoses

 Financial hardship negatively impacts a cancer patient’s mental health, physical willpower, and financial wellbeing as seen through increased debt, savings depletions, and filing for bankruptcy protection. This in turn can affect treatment adherence through forgone or delayed medical care, resulting in reduced survival. The higher the out-of-pocket costs for cancer therapeutics, the higher the risk for delayed treatment initiation or abandonment, risking early mortality and/or diminished quality of life.

A pilot study by Shankaran et al., revealed that introducing financial navigation programs could serve to lower anxiety surrounding the cost of medical expenditures, even if the actual cost remains the same. Training programs infinancial navigation provided by hospital staff can decrease and/or optimize patient out-of-pocket spending while reducing losses to health care facilities. However, a real-time online survey of oncology navigators found that 50% identified lack of resources as a barrier for getting financial assistance, highlighting the considerable room for improvement when connecting patients to the resources they need.

Treatment-related financial toxicity has been addressed by various professional outlets, patient-advocacy organizations, and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). For instance, the American Society of Clinical Oncologysuggests that cancer treatment providers should discuss treatment costs with their patients. Other organizations, including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the President’s Cancer Panel recommend addressing the high costs of cancer care. While a large majority of NCI-designated cancer centers conduct some version of financial screening, only a small fraction actively follow-up on the effectiveness of the screen and connecting patients to financial resources. The collective research in this space highlights the need for implementing financial hardship screening and mitigation after cancer diagnoses to improve patients’ quality of life during and after treatment.

 

Conclusions

 The convergence of increasingly high-cost cancer care and treatment options, lack of health insurance or underinsurance, high out-of-pocket costs, and widening disparities in the ability to cover medical expenses or access quality medical care, provide a strong argument for the implementation of financial hardship screening for cancer patients and their loved ones along with access to suitable financial resources.

The Colon Cancer Foundation provides information on financial assistance programs that patients can access.

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