Evidence-Based Oncology

The Quest for Better Survivorship: Guidelines Promote More Accountable Cancer Care

Published Online: December 13, 2013
Peter Page
Over the past 20 years, advances in cancer treatment have created a new challenge: How does medicine meet the needs of increasing numbers of patients who survive the disease? Thanks to earlier detection and more effective therapies, roughly 14 million cancer survivors are now living in the United States, with this population expected to reach 18 million by 2020.1

The challenges of survivorship were first spotlighted in the 2005 Institute of Medicine (IOM) report, From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost in Transition.2 The study estimated that 10 million cancer survivors were then alive in the United States; that number had tripled complex physical and psychosocial conditions. The study found primary care physicians (PCPs) seldom received explicit guidance from oncologists for survivors in remission and lacked evidence-based best practices.2

A 2012 report on survivorship published by the American Cancer Society (ACS)3 estimated 13.7 million Americans with a history of cancer were alive on January 1, 2012, and nearly 18 million will be alive January 1, 2022. Prostate cancer is the most common diagnosis for men; at 43% of all cancers for men it is almost 3 times as common as the next 2 diagnoses combined, which are colorectal (9%) and melanoma of the skin (7%). Similarly for women, breast cancer at 41% is more than twice as common as uterine corpus (8%) and colorectal (8%) cases combined.3

The 2012 ACS report concluded, “It is increasingly important to understand the unique medical and psychosocial needs of survivors and be aware of resources that can assist patients, caregivers, and health care providers in navigating the various phases of cancer survivorship.”1

“We are going from the Big C, that automatically killed people and we couldn’t do much about it, to cancer as a chronic disease or a disease we can cure. It is still scary, but it is not the automatic death sentence it once was,’’ said Crystal Denlinger, MD, an oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Denlinger, who specializes in treating gastrointestinal cancers, chaired the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) panel on survivorship guidelines and coauthored their publication in the Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network in May 2013.4 A patient-friendly version now appears on the NCCN website.5

“We are getting better at what we are doing, but we were all focused on treating the cancer and not the fallout of the treatment,” she said.

Survivorship Demands a Plan

The NCCN guidelines for cancer survivorship planning and care are intended for both oncologists and PCPs treating cancer survivors. The algorithms in the guidelines make recommendations for addressing anxiety and depression, cognitive function, exercise, fatigue, immunizations and infections, pain, sexual function, and sleep disorders in patients who have survived breast cancer, chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), colon cancer, Hodgkin lymphoma, melanoma, non-Hodgkin lymphomas, non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), prostate cancer in 30 years. About two-thirds, or more than 6 million people, were older than 65 years.2

A large percentage of survivors, particularly those who are older, suffer chronic conditions in addition to cancer. The IOM report detailed systemic shortcomings in coordinating the nation’s notoriously uncoordinated healthcare system to provide cancer care for aging patients with cancer, small cell lung cancer, and thyroid carcinoma.5 Denlinger said the guidelines will help care providers fulfill a crucial recommendation from the 2005 IOM report: each cancer patient should receive a “survivorship care plan” that includes diagnosis and content of followup visits, tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and preventing recurrent or new cancers, legal rights affecting employment and insurance, and the availability of psychological and support services.

“The survivorship care plan that delineates what is required for follow-up has gained a lot of traction,’’ she said. “A lot of people are struggling with how to put together these care plans when, for many patients, the information is scattered across multiple offices and multiple systems.’’

The Commission on Cancer, which certifies most US cancer care centers, has made survivorship care plans a certification requirement beginning in 2015.6 “A few decades ago, a patient surviving cancer 5 years was a success,but now people are surviving longer and longer,” said Sarah R. Arvey, PhD, director of Research and Evaluation at the LIVESTRONG Foundation in Austin, Texas. “Once treatment is completed, patients and the primary care physicians should receive a list of what happened to you in the hospital, and the known risks of those medicines and treatments. You need to walk out of there with a plan. With electronic medical records this will become easier.’’

LIVESTRONG has developed a survivorship care planning template that, along with templates from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, is recommended in the new survivorship care plan requirement.6

Linking Survivorship to Payment

Survivorship planning and care is rising as a priority, because the transition from a fee-for-service reimbursement system to an accountable care system demands increasing correlation between results and what gets paid for, said Bo Gamble, director of strategic practice initiatives for the Community Oncology Alliance (COA).

“Healthcare is the last industry without metrics to determine what is good care or not such good care,’’ Gamble said. “We’ve seen a mass exodus of oncologists from community practice to hospitals, mainly for reasons of reimbursement. Patients and their insurers are paying almost double for hospital care. We want to develop the measures to make valid comparisons and create some healthy competition to improve care.’’

In 2012, Gamble and COA launched the Oncology Medical Home Initiative to explore with medical providers and payers what constitutes quality cancer care. He reports a high level of agreement and strong commitment to developing survivorship as part of standard care. “We asked the question, ‘What do you need in cancer care?’ The answer from everybody is the best quality care at the least cost with a good survivorship program that includes quality of life,’’ Gamble said.

“Payers, providers, patients, everyone answered the same. The payers said—and this was profound—they don’t want to give the impression (they) are about withholding care.’’

PDF is available on the last page.