Friday, December 23, 2011

December 23, 2011– Mademoiselle Zevalin’s Empty Dance Card

Interesting article, here, about the difficulties ibritumomab tiuxetan (Zevalin) has been having, getting accepted as an effective treatment for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

So, at the Oncologists’ Ball, why is Zevalin – which is actually a pretty hot little number – treated like such a wallflower?  Dr. John Pagel, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, thinks he understands the reason:

“Unfortunately, oncologists still have to refer the patient to a radiation oncologist or nuclear medicine physician for administration of the drug, which can be a barrier for treatment in some cases.”

Gee, d’ya think?

For most oncologists to prescribe Zevalin for their patients, they have to give up the privilege of dispensing treatment themselves.  Since many oncologists – who have invested big bucks in elaborate chemo suites, where they dispense medicines costing tens of thousands of dollars – earn their money not just from the medical wisdom they dole out, but also from the meds, telling a patient “I think Zevalin could help you” means foregoing the income from several months of costly chemo treatments.

Is it any wonder so many oncologists stick to the classic approaches, which just so happen to use the treatment agents they’re licensed to dispense?

Zevalin, along with Bexxar (the other leading drug of this type), is the highly-effective Rituximab bonded with radioactive particles.  The CD-20 targeting agent in Rituximab seeks out and travels to the malignant cells – unleashing Rituximab’s own cancer-fighting properties – but then the radiation zaps ‘em again.  It’s a potent one-two punch.

Sort of reminds me of the sharks with laser beams that were the weapon Dr. Evil lusted after in the silly Austin Powers movies.  Rituximab’s the shark.  Radiation’s the laser beam.  Get it? (Can you hear the screams of a metaphor being stretched beyond all recognition?)

How do you suppose radioimmunotherapy studies of drugs like Zevalin are received at professional conferences, when very few of the members of the professional association are licensed to dispense the drug?  (Doctors who administer radioimmunotherapy have to be double-qualified, both in oncology and in either radiology or nuclear medicine.)  These docs-on-holiday hear reports of the science behind these treatments, and they can’t really argue with it, but it can’t fail to enter their minds that, in order to prescribe these drugs, they’ll have to let some other doctor’s practice collect the revenue.

I’m not charging oncologists with running some kind of cartel or cover-up.  It's just that I'm enough of a Calvinist to point out that they’re only human, and therefore such a thought can’t fail to enter their minds.

Again, it’s the basic structure of our healthcare system that’s the real root of the problem. Force doctors to function as small-business entrepreneurs who are paid according to treatments dispensed rather than according to clinical outcomes, and a proven drug like Zevalin gets pushed to the back burner.

It would be interesting for someone to study which sorts of oncologists are referring patients for radioimmunotherapy more often – those who own their own practices, or those who work for organizations like the Mayo Clinic, where they’re all on salary.

Are there any investigative journalists reading this, looking for a scoop?  Just crunch those numbers. I’ll bet you’ll see a correlation.


Vance said...

Carl, it is an oversimplification to say that oncologists don't refer patients for Bexxar or Zevalin because it isn't in their own personal arsenal. In fact, a fair amount of the treatment is done by the medical oncologists.

Every day medical oncologists take financial risks. We buy and administer expensive drugs, hoping that the insurance carriers will reimburse us enough to cover the costs. We are used to this.

But Bexxar and Zevalin are administered by nuclear medicine physicians, and they are NOT used to taking the financial risks. Furthermore, they don't know how to bill for such drugs, and they are afraid to try.

So no one in our 600,000 person service area offers the treatments. The medical oncologists are not licensed to dispense the drugs, and the people who are licensed are afraid to take the financial risks.

Thus, the medical oncologists are forced to look for alternatives.

brooke r. said...

Oh, you don't need an investigative journalist. To be taken more seriously you need a researcher in the behavioral sciences. Optimally a pair of researchers - one from behavioral sciences and one from public health or biochem. Re: someone to understand the people and someone to understand the context. If you had funding, and I weren't up to my earballs in dissertation I'd volunteer to help. After all, cancer stole my father from me, it's stealing my sister-friend from me, but more importantly her 18 year old daughter, and it stole my other sister-friend's dear brother in less than a month. If I can use my behavioral sciences skills to help, I would.

tahera said...

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