SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Costs of care are a major burden in patients undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer, especially those who are socially isolated, finds a study reported at the Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Cancer Symposium.

More than two-thirds of the 73 patients with locally advanced disease had adopted life-altering strategies, such as tapping their savings or using credit to help pay for treatment, according to data presented in a poster session and related press briefing.

Patients who had a high perceived level of social isolation were more than 10 times as likely to have taken such actions than counterparts who had a medium or low level of isolation.

“Based on our study, a majority of patients rely on lifestyle-altering, cost-coping strategies to manage the financial side effects of head and neck cancer care. Financial side effects should be considered a morbidity of head and neck cancer,” commented lead author Sunny Kung, a second-year medical student at the University of Chicago and lead author on the study. “A lack of social support, coupled with increased loneliness is a risk factor for suboptimal medication adherence, missed appointments, and longer length of hospital stay.”

“Our study demonstrates that it is important for physicians to assess risk factors such as financial burden, loneliness, and [lack of] social support in order to provide optimal care for our patients,” she added. “Additional studies should be done to identify patient-specific interventions in order to help these patients optimize their care.”

Press briefing moderator Dr. Randall J. Kimple of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, noted, “One of the questions that our patients often ask and one of the things that we often spend time talking to our patients about is how long can they continue working after treatment. Was your dataset able to provide any insight into that?”

“Our study confirms that many of our patients are actually unable to continue working,” Ms. Kung replied. “I think head and neck cancer has some of the highest rates of disability of all the cancers – it’s something above 50% or 60%. I’m not sure about the exact number, but it’s quite high.”

In the study, the investigators followed patients starting treatment at the University of Chicago, surveying them monthly for 6 months about out-of-pocket costs, coping strategies, medication compliance, health care use, and perceived social isolation (loneliness and lack of social support).

During that 6-month period, 69% of patients overall used one or more lifestyle-altering strategies to cope with the costs of treatment. Specifically, 62% used part or all of their savings, 42% borrowed money or used credit, 25% sold possessions or property, and 23% had family members work more hours.

“We only assessed whether or not they used their savings, not how much of their savings they used,” Ms. Kung noted. “So this is a limitation of our study.”

The patients’ mean total monthly out-of-pocket costs totaled to $1,589. This was mainly driven by direct medical costs such as deductibles and hospital bills ($1,286), but insurance premiums also contributed ($303). Median values were lower but still substantial.

In multivariate analyses that controlled for potential confounders including factors such as marital status, patients were significantly and markedly more likely to resort to cost-coping strategies if they had Medicaid as compared with private insurance (odds ratio, 42.3). The likelihood rose with each $1,000 increment in total out-of-pocket costs (OR, 1.07) and fell with each $10,000 increment in wealth status (OR, 0.95). Patients who had a high perceived level of social isolation before starting treatment were also dramatically more likely to use these strategies (OR, 11.5).

Furthermore, on average, patients with a high level of social isolation skipped medication on more days (21.4 vs. 5.5; P = .03) and missed more appointments (7 vs. 3; P = .008).

“I believe it’s important for physicians to start screening patients – just as we do for depression – and identifying patients who have high perceived social isolation so that we can intervene earlier on, before they experience these negative financial side effects of their care,” concluded Ms. Kung.


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