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With Cancer Care, The U.S. Spends More, But Gets More

By now it's hardly news that the U.S. spends more than every other industrialized country on health care. But a new study suggests that at least when it comes to cancer care, Americans may actually be getting decent value.

The study, in April issue of the policy journal Health Affairs, isn't the first to suggest that U.S. patients do better than their European counterparts when it comes to surviving most types of cancer. Other studies have shown that the U.S. approves cancer drugs faster than most nations across the pond.

But this study, by researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California and partially funded by the cancer drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb, actually attempted to quantify what the U.S. gets for the additional money it spends.

And what it found is that for most types of solid tumor cancers, particularly breast and prostate cancer, even after considering the higher costs, U.S. patients experienced greater survival gains than patients in Europe.

And those costs did grow. Between 1983 and 1999, the period covered by the study, U.S. spending on cancer care grew 49 percent (in 2010 dollars). By comparison, spending in the 10 European countries included in the study grew by 16 percent. But for patients diagnosed between 1995 and 1999, average survival from time of diagnosis in the U.S. was 11.1 years, while in Europe it was 9.3 years.

"Using conservative market estimates of the value of a statistical life, this study presented evidence that U.S. cancer survival gains are worth more than the corresponding growth in the cost of U.S. cancer care according to the most recent data available for analysis," the study's authors wrote.

There are some significant caveats, of course. One is that that "most recent data" ends in 1999. And, they note, "important changes in cancer care have occurred in the past ten years, including the introduction of expensive new drug treatment and increased use of diagnostic imaging."

So, the authors point out, it will take still more research to determine if today's increased spending is still worth it, and what specific aspects of cancer care are driving the U.S.'s improved survival rates.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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