Despite ‘Incredible Advancements’ in Cancer Care, Experts Say Systems Are Still Not Inclusive for All

In honor of World Cancer Day, experts from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network discussed efforts to reduce disparities in cancer care across the United States.

Today, Feb. 4, is World Cancer Day — a yearly initiative that was introduced in 2000 by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) to raise awareness and funds to improve cancer outcomes around the globe. This year, the focus is on closing the care gap and decreasing disparities people face because of their socioeconomic status, access to health care, race, religion or sexual and gender identity.

“The theme ‘Closing the Care Gap’ is an acknowledgment that, despite incredible advancements in care and innovation in treatment, cancer care systems in the United States and globally have not yet been made accessible and inclusive for all. Significant disparities in both care access and care outcomes persist across race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, geographies and disability,” said Alyssa Schatz, senior director of policy and advocacy at the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), in an interview with CURE®.

To give an example, Schatz cited research that found that cancer care for Black patients is much more likely to stray from recommended treatment guidelines compared to their White counterparts. Now, the NCCN is working with the American Cancer Society and the National Minority Quality Form to mitigate disparities.

Other efforts to eliminate gaps in care include NCCN Guidelines, the expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act and broader clinical trial accessibility, explained Dr. Crystal S. Denlinger, senior vice president and chief scientific officer at the NCCN and Terrell Johnson, manager of policy and advocacy at the NCCN.

As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many health care systems switched to telehealth models, where certain appointments can happen virtually, instead of having the patient go into the hospital or clinic. While this helped many people better connect to their doctors and nurses, it disconnected others.

“Not everyone had access to video technology or a good internet connection, which potentially impacted care delivery. Further work to optimize utilization of telehealth for the right person in the right care setting with the right tools is needed to ensure that patients have access to care regardless of where they are located,” Denlinger said.

On the clinical trial front, Johnson mentioned the DIVERSE Trials Act was introduced to Congress and would require that the Director of Health and Human Services issue guidance on improving access to clinical trials for communities of color.

“The legislation would also permit HHS to issue grants and enter contractual arrangements to support education and recruitment for clinical trials for diseases with disproportionate impact on underrepresented populations. For sponsors, this legislation also includes a provision that would create a statutory safe harbor for patient support that can be used to cover the ancillary costs of trials participation such as transportation or childcare,” Johnson said.

Though these are all exciting advancements that will close the care gap in cancer care, the experts urged that there is still much work to be done.

“We can never achieve high-quality care until we achieve equitable care,” Schatz said.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.