Comparative Effectiveness – What's in a Word?

I attended the “Comparative Effectiveness” themed roundtable at the annual NCCN meeting last week. I’m still not sure what comparative effectiveness means, or what The Hill crowd is planning with it, but I know there are a lot of people who want to discuss it and seem very concerned about it. Someday I hope to know how the Comparative Effectiveness Institute is going to impact on cancer care giving, but until then I’ll keep attending meetings and picking up tidbits pointing me toward the story. When I figure it out we’ll do an article. Sarcasm aside, if this roundtable was about Comparative Effectiveness, I want more. For oncology wonks, this was a great hour spent contemplating the future of the U.S. healthcare system and in particular the future of the oncology industry.

Perhaps there is an underlying problem fundamental to the term Comparative Effectiveness because we don’t even know what Effectiveness truly means. The roundtable began with an attempt at defining Effectiveness as it applies to oncology, and right away we were faced with the problem of Progression Free Survival (PFS). As Dr. Saltz of MSKCC stated very well, Progression Free Survival implies hope because when you throw that word Survival around, you automatically create hope for patients. Does positive PFS correlate to positive Overall Survival? Does a positive PFS deserve to provide hope to patients? Don’t forget that PFS is defined as the period of time patients lived without the cancer getting worse. What does that have to do with survival? And hope?

As you hear more about Comparative Effectiveness, think first about what Effectiveness is. By just offering up one simple word– survival – a can of worms is immediately opened. Optimists can argue that the cancer industry has made incremental but meaningful gains extending the lives of cancer patients, however, cynics can argue that the progress being made isn’t enough and that it is adding too little time to patients’ lives at a very high cost to the healthcare system. If we want to discuss Effectiveness in oncology, we need to be careful with our words, and be prepared to go down a path with wildly differing opinions on what the Effectiveness bar should be.

In a few weeks, NCCN and OBR will be webcasting the full roundtable discussion for those oncology wonks out there who are interested. I think oncologists and industry alike will find it an entertaining, provocative, and worthwhile hour. Stay tuned.

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