Online Tool That Shares Prices of Cancer Treatments Proves Useful in Pilot Program

Thanks to a new online tool, oncologists can now better understand and be aware of the prices of the drugs and treatments that they recommend.
BY Beth Fand Incollingo
PUBLISHED February 24, 2016
Oncologists are well-versed in dealing with practical matters – they not only know why a certain drug is likely to help fight your cancer, but they’re aware of the day-to-day difficulties its side effects might cause, and how to ease them.

But there’s one pragmatic aspect of treatment that often causes doctors to draw a blank – the prices of the drugs they recommend.

Of course, that issue can be very important to patients who are trying to keep up with their medical bills. That’s why Group Health Research Institute in Seattle has created an online tool for oncologists that lists prices for the 50 most commonly prescribed cancer treatment regimens.

Meant to help oncologists inform patients, the tool was pilot tested at four oncology clinics in Washington state. The results of that experiment will be presented in a poster session during the Quality Care Symposium to be hosted by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Feb. 26 and 27 in Phoenix.

“With cancer treatment prices on the rise, it’s become increasingly challenging for patients to manage their personal finances,” said lead study author Nora B. Henrikson, a research associate at the Group Health Research Institute. “Since most doctors don’t know what various drugs and tests cost, this tool will allow them to have more productive conversations with their patients — and potentially alleviate some stress.”

Participating clinics were part of Group Health Cooperative, an integrated health care delivery system in the Pacific Northwest. The Group Health Research Institute is affiliated with the cooperative. The online tool was accessible through electronic health records, and made worksheets available that provided reimbursement codes and prices for all prescribed drugs, supportive medications, tests and professional services for one treatment cycle.

The tool does not go as far as to take insurance coverage into account so that patients will know their actual out-of-pocket costs, and this was cited as a drawback by those surveyed at the clinics that tested the tool. The researchers who created the method are now exploring ways to include personalized out-of-pocket cost estimates. In the pilot study, they also verified the accuracy of the cost information in the tool by comparing it against patient bills.

In the survey, users reported that the tool “provided high value to patients and their own practice, as well as the health care delivery system, without having a negative effect on staff workload,” according to a statement from ASCO.

Clinic staff members reported that most patients appreciated knowing the costs of potential treatments, and also were grateful that the prices quoted gave them a picture of the total cost of a prospective protocol. Visits to price sheets exceeded the number of treatments ordered, which may indicate that the information was used to help choose therapies.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing the highest value, survey participants rated the tool with an average value of 7.9 to patients, 7.8 to the oncology service line, 7.7 to the Group Health system and 6.5 to clinic staff members, the study authors reported.

At the pilot clinics, most oncologists offered pricing information only if patients asked, but “in future research projects,” Henrikson said, “we hope to offer treatment cost information proactively to all patients.”

Additional next steps, according to ASCO, will include automating and integrating the tool into patients’ electronic health records and expanding it to capture pricing data for all 300 oncology treatment protocols used at Group Health.

“Increasingly, patients want to be able to discuss the cost of various treatments with their physicians, so it’s important that doctors have a reliable and easy way of accessing pricing information,” said Patricia Ganz, a medical doctor and an ASCO spokesperson. “The innovative tool created for oncologists in Washington State could be a model for physicians in other areas who want to help their patients better plan for the future.”
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