One Harvard researcher called proton beam units unaffordable “Death Stars.” A Harvard-linked hospital has one.

It’s not unusual for health policy researchers to hold opinions that differ from parent institutions. Here’s one case.

A Kaiser Health News story says “the facilities zap cancer with beams of subatomic proton particles instead of conventional radiation. The treatment, which can cost $48,000 or more, affects surrounding tissue less than traditional radiation does because its beams stop at a tumor rather than passing through. But evidence is sparse that this matters.”

So, some insurers are refusing to pay, the story says:

The rebellion by private insurers “is very, very good” and may signal the health system “is finally figuring out how to say no to low-value procedures,” said Amitabh Chandra, a Harvard health policy professor who has called proton facilities unaffordable “Death Stars.”

Here’s what they say at MGH:

The MGH Department of Radiation Oncology is an established leading institution treating with protons. In the 1960s and 1970s, pioneering MGH neurosurgeons and radiation oncologists, working with Harvard’s Cyclotron Laboratory, became the first in the world to discover how to harness the extraordinary behavior exhibited by high energy protons, a phenomenon known as the Bragg peak, for medical care. By using protons rather than conventional x-rays (photons), physicians could deliver radiation energy directly and precisely to tumors and cancerous cells, causing less damage to nearby healthy tissue.

See full story below

As Proton Centers Struggle, A Sign Of A Health Care Bubble?

The Maryland Proton Treatment Center chose “Survivor” as the theme for its grand opening in 2016, invoking the reality-TV show’s tropical sets with its own Tiki torches, palm trees and thatched booths piled with pineapples and bananas.

It was the perfect motif for a facility dedicated to fighting cancer. Jeff Probst, host of CBS’ “Survivor,” greeted guests via video from a Fiji beach.

NIH image

But behind the scenes, the $200 million center’s own survival was less than certain. Insurers were hesitating to cover procedures at the Baltimore facility, affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical Center. The private investors who developed the machine had badly overestimated the number of patients it could attract. Bankers would soon be owed repayment of a $170 million loan.

Only two years after it opened, the center is enduring a painful restructuring with investors poised for huge losses. It has never made money, although it has ample cash to finance operations, said Jason Pappas, its acting CEO since November. Last year it lost more than $1 million, he said.

Volume projections were “north” of the current rate of about 85 patients per day, Pappas said. How far north? “Upper Canada,” he said.

For years, health systems rushed enthusiastically into expensive medical technologies such as proton beam centers, robotic surgery devices and laser scalpels — potential cash cows in the one economic sector that was reliably growing. Developers got easy financing to purchase the latest multimillion-dollar machine, confident of generous reimbursement.

There are now 27 proton beam units in the U.S., up from about half a dozen a decade ago. More than 20 more are either under construction or in development.

But now that employers, insurers and government seem determined to curb growth in health care spending and to combat overcharges and wasteful procedures, such bets are less of a sure thing.

The problem is that the rollicking business of new medical machines often ignored or outpaced the science: Little research has shown that proton beam therapy reduces side effects or improves survival for common cancers compared with much cheaper, traditional treatment.

(Story continues below.)

If the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble marked previous decades, something of a medical-equipment bubble may be showing itself now. And proton beam machines could become the first casualty.

“The biggest problem these guys have is extra capacity. They don’t have enough patients to fill the rooms” at many proton centers, said Dr. Peter Johnstone, who was CEO of a proton facility at Indiana University before it closed in 2014 and has published research on the industry. At that operation, he said, “we began to see that simply having a proton center didn’t mean people would come.”

Sometimes occupying as much space as a Walmart store and costing enough money to build a dozen elementary schools, the facilities zap cancer with beams of subatomic proton particles instead of conventional radiation. The treatment, which can cost $48,000 or more, affects surrounding tissue less than traditional radiation does because its beams stop at a tumor rather than passing through. But evidence is sparse that this matters.

And so, except in cases of childhood cancer or tumors near sensitive organs such as eyes, commercial insurers have largely balked at paying for proton therapy.

“Something that gets you the same clinical outcomes at a higher price is called inefficient,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, a health policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a longtime critic of the proton-center boom. “If investors have tried to make money off the inefficiency, I don’t think we should be upset that they’re losing money on it.”

Investors backing a surge of new facilities starting in 2009 counted on insurers approving proton therapy not just for children, but also for common adult tumors, especially prostate cancer. In many cases, nonprofit health systems such as Maryland’s partnered with for-profit investors seeking high returns.

Companies marketed proton machines under the assumption that advertising, doctors and insurers would ensure steady business involving patients with a wide variety of cancers. But the dollars haven’t flowed in as expected.

Indiana University’s center became the first proton-therapy facility to close following the investment boom, in 2014. An abandoned proton project in Dallas is in bankruptcy court.

California Protons, formerly associated with Scripps Health in San Diego, landed in bankruptcy last year.

A number of others, including Maryland’s, have missed financial targets or are hemorrhaging money, according to industry analysts, financial documents and interviews with executives.

The Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute in Virginia has lost money for at least five years in a row, recording an operating loss of $3 million in its most recent fiscal year, financial statements show.
The Provision CARES Proton Therapy Center in Knoxville, Tenn., lost $1.7 million last year on revenue of $23 million — $5 million below its revenue target. The center is meeting its debt obligations, said Tom Welch, its president.
Centers operated by privately held ProCure in Somerset, N.J., and Oklahoma City have defaulted on debt, according to Loop Capital, an investment bank working on deals for new proton facilities.
A facility associated with the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, a consortium of hospitals, lost $19 million in fiscal 2015 before restructuring its debt, documents show. Patient volume is growing but executives “continue to be disappointed in the slower-than-expected acceptance of proton therapy treatment” by insurers, said Annika Andrews, CEO of SCCA Proton Therapy.
A center near Chicago lost tens of millions of dollars before restructuring its finances in a 2013 sale to hospitals now affiliated with Northwestern Medicine, documents filed with state regulators show. The facility is “meeting our budget expectations,” said a Northwestern spokesman.

Representatives from ProCure and the facilities in San Diego and Hampton did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

“In any industry that’s really an emerging industry, you often have people who enter the business with over-exuberant expectations,” said Scott Warwick, executive director of the National Association for Proton Therapy. “I think maybe that’s what went on with some of the centers. They thought the technology would grow faster than it has.”

In the absence of evidence showing protons produce better outcomes for prostate, lung or breast cancer, “commercial insurers are just not reimbursing” for these more common tumors, said Brandon Henry, a medical device analyst for RBC Capital Markets.

The most expensive type of traditional, cancer-fighting radiation — intensity modulated radiation therapy — costs around $20,000 per treatment, while others cost far less. The government’s Medicare program for seniors covers proton treatment more often than private insurers but is insufficient by itself to recoup the massive investment, analysts said.

The rebellion by private insurers “is very, very good” and may signal the health system “is finally figuring out how to say no to low-value procedures,” said Amitabh Chandra, a Harvard health policy professor who has called proton facilities unaffordable “Death Stars.”

Proton centers are fighting back, enlisting patients, legislators and nonprofits to push for reimbursement. Oklahoma has passed and Virginia has considered legislation to effectively require insurers to cover proton therapy in more cases.

An entire day at the 2017 National Proton Conference in Orlando was dedicated to tips on getting paid, including a session titled “Strategies for Engaging Health Insurance on Proton Therapy Coverage.”

Proton facilities tell patients the therapy is appropriate for many kinds of cancer, never mentioning the cost and guiding them through complicated appeals to reverse coverage denials. The Alliance for Proton Therapy Access, an industry group, has online software for generating letters to the editor demanding coverage.

In hopes of navigating a difficult market, many new centers are smaller — with one or two treatment rooms — and not as expensive as the previous generation of units, which typically have four or five rooms, like the Baltimore facility, and cost $200 million or more.

Location is also critical. Treatment requires near-daily visits for more than a month, which may explain why larger centers such as Maryland’s never attracted the out-of-town business they needed.

To make the finances work, hospitals are combining forces. The first proton beam center in New York City is under construction, a joint project of Memorial Sloan Kettering, Mount Sinai and Montefiore Health System.

Smaller facilities, which can cost less than $50 million, should be able to keep their rooms full in many major metro areas, said Prakash Ramani, a senior vice president at Loop Capital, which is helping develop such projects in Alabama, Florida and elsewhere.

Maryland’s center hopes to break even by year’s end, executives said. That will involve refinancing, converting to nonprofit, inflicting losses on investors and issuing municipal bonds.

But plans call for four centers soon to be open in the D.C. area.

“It’s a real arms race,” said Johnstone, the former proton-center CEO, who has co-authored papers on proton-therapy economics. He is now vice chair of radiation oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, which doesn’t have a proton center. “What places need now are patients — a huge supply of patients.”

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Two babies, two rattles, one heart. The complicated decision to separate conjoined twins when only one will survive

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by Nora Valdez. Used by Permission.

Oscar J. Benavidez, MD, the MGH pediatric cardiologist  involved in a difficult separation of conjoined twin girls, remembers a painful moment on the day of surgery. When the joined babies were rolled into the OR, each was holding a rattle.

He and the others knew: only one of them would leave the operating room alive. And even that wasn’t certain.

Benavidez and two others recalled the case at a Tuesday gathering of members of the Association of Health Care Journalists. It was a case the described rather clinically in an article behind the paywall in  The New England Journal of Medicine  and more conversationally in STAT. The Globe’s sister health site hosted the event in their new downtown offices.

The twins had separate brains, lung and hearts, but only one heart was functioning.

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Ethicist Brian M. Cummings, MD,  was also at the event  along with pediatric surgeon Allan M. Goldstein. In Cummings’ contribution to the NEJM article, he noted  “In this case, to do nothing would most likely result in the death of both girls but to intervene could save only one child. Can observation of both of their deaths be defended? Can an interventional killing be rationalized?”

The decision was left to the parents, a couple from rural Africa.  Their voices, in English, come in at the  end of the NEJM article. Life for them had been “very unpleasant. Conjoined twins are not seen frequently, and because of the stigma associated with this condition, it was very difficult to seek treatment or even just to go out in public.”

They agreed to the surgery and, as expected, one twin survived.

Writing in Stat — The Boston Globe’s sister health news site  — Cummings described how he felt after the surgery.

“…Twin B arrived in the intensive care unit. I felt a profound mixture of relief and sadness, suddenly feeling the burden of facilitating this emotional process. Even though it had become clear what we needed to do, it had been harder than I thought. I had only a few moments to say my own goodbye to Twin A and I could not hold back my tears. I wasn’t alone.”

 

Health Leaders: #Lacks family members now have a say in #Henrietta’s immortal scientific legacy

My report from Health Leaders on a recent talk by members of Henrietta Lacks’ famfile_000-4ily.

The ongoing story of the late Henrietta Lacks, the African-American
woman who unwittingly provided cells for years of medical research, has much to offer those battling disparities
in healthcare, according to family members who spoke in Boston last week.

That message, delivered at a panel discussion, came from Lacks’ grandson David Lacks, Jr. and her great granddaughter Victoria Baptiste, RN, as well as Joseph Betancourt, MD, director of the Disparities Solutions Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.

From ob/gyn to surgery, MGH study found salaries for male doctors higher than #female #doctors at public US #medical #schools

From JAMA Internal Medicine:

  • Question Do differences in salary exist between male and female academic physicians in US public medical schools?

  • nci-vol-1926-150
    Just like the old days? 

    Relying on Freedom of Information laws that mandate release of salary information of public university employees in several states, this study analyzed sex differences in academic physician salary among 10 241 physicians in 24 public medical schools. Accounting for physician age, experience, faculty rank, specialty, scientific authorship, National Institutes of Health funding, clinical trial participation, and Medicare reimbursements, female physicians earned less than males.

  • Meaning Significant sex differences in salary exist in public medical schools after accounting for clinical and research productivity.

Well, not  everywhere. More from The New York Times

The researchers also found stark variations in the salary gap at different medical schools, suggesting some address pay inequities more aggressively than others.

“The biggest surprise is there are some schools where this doesn’t seem to be an issue,” said Dr. Anupam B. Jena, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School.

Genetics and autism: One study, one story

Two Boston-linked stories today on the genetics of Autism.

ss sciFrom the Scientist Last year a team of Australian scientists claimed to have developed a genetic test that predicts risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with “72 percent accuracy.”y night at a Boston fundraiser in support of his research into the functioning of brain synapses in autism

The Scientists reports that they said the test  “may provide a tool for screening at birth or during infancy to provide an index of at-risk status.”

But a new study, led by Benjamin Neale from Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that those claims were overblown. Neale’s team replicated the Australian group’s research in a larger sample, and found that the proposed panel of markers did not accurately predict ASDs.

“The claims in the original manuscript were quite bold. If they were true, it really would have been quite a major advance for the field, with serious ramifications for patients and other risk populations,” said Neale. “I think it’s important to ensure that this kind of work is of the highest quality.”

More here from SciBlogger Emily Willingham. 

And, this from WBUR

BOSTON — For Timmy and Stuart Supple, a pool is one of the best places to be. That’s where their mother thought the boys, who are 8 and 10 years old and severely autistic, would be the most calm and least stressed for a very important introduction.

“We, we, we go see the doctor?” 10-year-old Stuart asked his mother.

His mother, Kate Supple, tells him the man standing in front of him by the pool is the doctor. Dr. Thomas Sudhof has never met the boys, but he wants to see their autism unchecked.

Sudhof isn’t a pediatrician or one of the myriad of therapists trying to get into their world and bring them out. The Stanford University neuroscientist — who this year shared the Nobel Prize in medicine for his decades of study into how brain cells communicate — has been studying Tommy and Stuart’s genes, specifically an alteration in one gene, for five years. The Supples hosted Sudhof Wednesda

From the Scientist Last year a team of Australian scientists claimed to have developed a genetic test that predicts risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with “72 percent accuracy.”y night at a Boston fundraiser in support of his research into the functioning of brain synapses in autism

The Scientists reports that they said the test  “may provide a tool for screening at birth or during infancy to provide an index of at-risk status.”

But a new study, led by Benjamin Neale from Massachusetts General Hospital, suggests that those claims were overblown. Neale’s team replicated the Australian group’s research in a larger sample, and found that the proposed panel of markers did not accurately predict ASDs.

“The claims in the original manuscript were quite bold. If they were true, it really would have been quite a major advance for the field, with serious ramifications for patients and other risk populations,” said Neale. “I think it’s important to ensure that this kind of work is of the highest quality.”

For Halloween, tour the dark side of Massachusetts medical history

             We’re sorry we missed the last Longwood Avenue walking tour for the season. Advertised as a tour of Boston’s “world-renowned” medical centers, the trip is clearly upbeat, with an emphasis on firsts and breakthroughs.  For a bit of the seamier side of Boston health history, you can still catch the Boston by Foot “Darkside” tour, which covers sites associated with the city’s smallpox and influenza epidemics.

Maybe they could combine the two by offering a healthcare/darkside tour.  First stop: Betsy Lehman Center for Patient Safety and Medical Error Reduction – named for the Boston Globe health news reporter who died in 1994 as the result of a medication error — an overdose of chemotherapy. They would have to add a Cambridge leg to the tour to get to Mt. Auburn Hospital, where a doctor took mid-surgery break to go cash his paycheck. Or, consider the Harvard monkeys. They keep dying at Harvard’s primate research center. And, they got caught up in a case of fraud when former psychology professor embellished the results of his research.

Murderous and murdered docs? The alleged “Craig’s List killer” – a BU med student – committed suicide in jail before he could be tried for murdering an “escort” in a Copley Square hotel.  Head to the suburbs for a walk in the woods where a Wellesley allergist was convicted of beating his wife and slashing her throat. Prosecutors said he was motivated by his appetite for prostitutes and phone sex. Richard Sharpe, a so-called “cross-dressing” dermatologist”  convicted of fatally shooting his wife point blank with a hunting rifle, also committed suicide in jail.

But, in Boston’s most notorious medical murder, the victim was doctor. In 1849, Boston Brahman Dr. George Parkman tried to collect a debt from a chemist co-worker and ended up dead. The killer chemist dismembered the body and hid it behind a wall at what was then Harvard Medical School, which was then at the site that is now Mass General Hospital. Download the app for a self guided walking tour.

Halloween ghoulishness aside, domestic violence is not to be taken lightly. Sharpe’s daughter has spoken out via a group called The R.O.S.E. Fund (Regaining One’s Self Esteem), which among other efforts seeks to transform “the lives of survivors that have physical reminders of their abusive past. In partnership with our medical affiliates we provide female survivors of domestic abuse with access to medical and dental reconstructive procedures to help them to regain their self-esteem.”  So, add one more stop to the tour — Mass Eye and Ear – where docs help heal victims of violence..

Health reform and cancer: Mass can’t get either one right?

Fortune/CNN jumps all over Mass health reform

 …(T)he plans offer lavish subsidies that swell the demand for health care, they do nothing to increase the supply of medical services in a market suffering from shortages of everything from family doctors to nurses to hospital beds. Two years after enacting health-care reform to rein in costs, Massachusetts strengthened “certificate of need laws” that prevent hospitals and other providers from competing with high-cost, entrenched suppliers. The state now requires that ambulatory surgical centers and outpatient treatment facilities get permission from regulators before they can enter the market. Their rivals invariably lobby the regulators to block competition, and usually win.

 And, the NY Times holds up MGH research as an example of the limits of targeted cancer therapies.

 Enthusiasts for the targeted drug have been saying for years that tumors will eventually be characterized by their molecular profiles — which mutated genes they have — rather than where in the body they occur. Names like breast cancer and lung cancer will be supplanted by terms like B-RAF-positive or EGFR-positive tumors. And drugs will be chosen based on that profile, the way antibiotics are generally selected based on the pathogen that is causing the infection, not on where in the body the infection occurs.

 Massachusetts General Hospital, for instance, is running a clinical trial testing a drug from AstraZeneca on any type of cancer — providing it has a mutation in the gene B-RAF, the same gene that is the target of PLX4032.

 But the test of PLX4032 in colon cancer suggests that the location of the tumor still does matter, that it will not be just a case of looking at the target. There are other examples as well. Erbitux and Vectibix do not work in colon cancer patients with a mutation in a gene called K-RAS. But the relationship between the mutation and the effectiveness of Erbitux does not seem to hold in lung cancer.