October 2014 Edition Vol.8, Issue 9

Clinical Pathways Can Lead to Cost Savings, Better Care

Clinical Pathways Can Lead to Cost Savings, Better Care

By Dr. Marcus Neubauer, Medical Director, Oncology Services at McKesson Specialty Health and The US Oncology Network

Think back to what healthcare was like in the early 1980’s. Thirty years ago, Electronic Health Records and oral chemotherapy were hardly blips on the radar, and vertical integration was in its infancy. Even though the healthcare environment was very different, many of the challenges we face today are the same. Rising costs, an aging population and higher rates of chronic disease were issues back then for private and government payers, providers and patients, just as they are now. Several initiatives that have a dramatic impact on healthcare today were born during that time – managed care, transitioning away from inpatient care toward outpatient care, and the introduction of clinical pathways.

Originally, pathways focused on standardizing care as a way of managing the quality of care provided. The goal was to reduce unnecessary variability in clinical practice and improve outcomes. Evidence-based guidelines were developed and adopted throughout healthcare from general practice to specialties – including oncology. Over the years, the role of pathways has evolved and expanded significantly. Today, they are not only effective tools for improving the quality of care, but also for driving value in healthcare.

Proof of Pathways as a Driver of Value

The idea of driving value with pathways has gained the attention of payers, providers and many thought leaders in cancer care. Treatment of cancer, in particular, has been identified as one of the fastest rising cost centers in healthcare and has come under scrutiny for high drug costs, high rates of hospitalizations, and potentially unnecessary and expensive end-of-life care.

Several studies from McKesson Specialty Health and The US Oncology Network reported over the last decade support the use of evidence-based guidelines, specifically Level I Pathways, as an effective method for lowering cost while still demonstrating outcomes similar to those in the published literature. Level I Pathways, which were developed nearly 10 years ago by The US Oncology Network, are now refined into Value Pathways powered by NCCNTM – the result of the recent collaboration between the National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN®), McKesson Specialty Health and The US Oncology Network.

A study conducted by The US Oncology Network and Milliman compared patients with colon cancer whose care followed physician-developed Level I Pathways (also known as ‘on pathway’) to other patients (‘off pathway’). The study found mean per patient cost differences of more than 30 percent (favoring the on pathway group).1

Another study looked at patients with non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) treated in the community outpatient setting. Cost of care over a twelve month period and overall survival were compared between patients treated on-pathway versus off-pathway, and the study found overall outpatient costs to be 35 percent lower for on-pathway versus off-pathway choices (average 12-month cost, $18,042 versus $27,737, respectively) with no difference in overall survival observed.2 Results of both of these studies suggest that treating patients according to clinical pathways is a cost-effective strategy for delivering care, and highlights opportunities for oncologists to help reign in cancer care costs.

How Pathways Help Reduce Cost

Pathways help reduce cost by standardizing care. One of the biggest cost drivers in healthcare is high variability in care. This is especially true in the treatment of cancer, given the high and variable costs of oncology drugs. Following pathways leads oncologists down a path that ultimately results in a treatment option that is proven to be the most clinically and cost effective. Pathways were developed with clinical efficacy, toxicity and cost taken into consideration. In other words, when developing a pathway to treat a specific type of cancer, if two drugs offer the same efficacy and toxicity, the lower cost drug, often a generic drug, is selected as the pathway treatment option. This also improves the predictability of cost for payers and patients.

Value Pathways powered by NCCNTM are an example of pathways that follow this formula. They are up-to-date, peer-reviewed, evidence-based practice algorithms for cancer treatment, and are designed to maximize survival, minimize toxicity and provide cost-saving opportunities.3  They represent the same rigor that we put into creating and maintaining Level I Pathways over a decade ago, but now have the expert contribution of NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology® (NCCN Guidelines®) panel members. Value Pathways powered by NCCN differ from NCCN Guidelines®. They are a subset of NCCN Guidelines that take not only efficacy, but toxicity and cost into consideration to come up with a more succinct list of treatment choices that drive value. Currently, Value Pathways for chemotherapy decision-making have been developed for more than 12 different diseases, and  Value Pathways for radiation therapy are on the horizon.

To bring Value Pathways powered by NCCN and NCCN Guidelines to the point of care, McKesson Specialty Health offers Clear Value Plusâ„ , a regimen support tool that provides Value Pathways and NCCN Guideline choices at the point of care. Clear Value Plus also allows a provider to see the relative costs of selected regimens to help patients make informed decisions that take both efficacy and cost to patient into consideration. Clear Value Plus can be used as a stand-alone web-based tool, integrated in the physician workflow through clinical interfaces with multiple Electronic Medical Records (EMRs), or fully embedded with McKesson Specialty Health’s iKnowMed Generation 2.  In all instances, Clear Value Plus delivers clinical and financial transparency along with real-time reporting.

The Future of Pathways

Some wonder if pathways are here for the duration or if the introduction of personalized medicine will eliminate the need for standardized care. On the surface, the idea of individualized care determined by genetic testing might suggest pathways will be rendered obsolete. However, Value Pathways take into account the cancer causing mutations that require specific treatment choices. So, if anything, the progression towards individualized medicine will actually lead to more refined pathways and ultimately better outcomes as the most effective treatments are used.

Likewise, questions arise about the effects of different payment scenarios using pathways. Payers are exploring a myriad of payment options to address spiraling costs, including bundled payments for treatment. Pathways inherently make cost of treatment for different types of cancer more predictable and can be a great tool in helping physicians and payers estimate costs and negotiate appropriate bundled payments.   

Thus far, practices using Clear Value Plus are giving very positive feedback. Users like having access to Value Pathways powered by NCCN, NCCN Guidelines and financial information all at the point of care. Also, because treatment decisions are recorded in Clear Value Plus, participating practices can use reports for quality improvement and payer contracting around value-based initiatives. Oncologists understand that when patients receive standardized care anchored in clinical quality and evidence-based medicine, the opportunity for positive outcomes increases, and oncologists can help keep costs in check. With this in mind, pathways will likely be an integral part of oncology care delivery for the foreseeable future.



1. Hoverman JR, Cartwright TH, Patt, DA, et al: Pathways, outcomes and costs in colon cancer: Retrospective evaluations in two distinct databases. J Oncol Pract 7:52s-59s, 2011 (suppl)

2. Neubauer M, Hoverman JR, Kolodziej M, et al: Cost Effectiveness of Evidence-Based Treatment Guidelines for the Treatment of Non–Small-Cell Lung Cancer in the Community Setting. J Oncol Pract Vol. 6, Issue 1:12s-18s, 2010

3. McKesson Specialty Health: Connecting payers and physicians for improved patient care. www.innoventoncology.com/web/


About the Contributor


Dr. Marcus Neubauer is a practicing oncologist and Medical Director, Oncology Services at McKesson Specialty Health and The US Oncology Network. In his role, Dr. Neubauer uses his extensive medical experience on pathways development and serves as the primary medical liaison between physicians in The US Oncology Network and physicians in the National Comprehensive Cancer Network® (NCCN®).

Post a Comment

OBR Archives

To view previous issues of OBR green you can visit our archives. The entire library of OBR green articles is searchable.