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Journal of Clinical Oncology recognizes that readers do not always have time to review an article in depth, and yet they still wish to understand how the results will influence their clinical practice or research. To address this need, we offer podcasts that will enhance the readership experience by presenting the key results of high-profile publications in a convenient audio format. Our podcasts are designed to place selected articles into a clinically useful perspective that is easy to listen to in the office or while on the road.

Life is busy, and it’s hard to get it all done during business hours! Journal of Clinical Oncology recognizes that you do not always have time to review an article in depth, and yet you wish to understand how the results will influence your clinical practice or research. JCO After Hours is a podcast intended to enhance the readership experience by presenting key results of high-profile publications in a convenient audio format, placing selected articles into a clinically useful perspective that you can listen to in the office or on the road.

Apr 11, 2024

Dr. Shannon Westin and her guests, Dr. Emily S. Tonorezos and
Dr. Michael Halpern, discuss their article, "Myths and Presumptions About Cancer Survivorship" recently published in the JCO.


The guests on this podcast episode have no disclosures to declare.  

Shannon Westin:Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of JCO After Hours, the podcast where we go in depth on manuscripts published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. I am your host, Social Media Editor of the JCO, Shannon Westin, and also a GYN Oncologist by trade. I'm thrilled to bring a topic that is very close to my heart. We're going to be talking about a Comments and Controversies article published in the JCO on November 16, 2023, entitled "Myths and Presumptions about Cancer Survivorship." I know you all will find this topic as enthralling as I have, and the authors do not have any conflicts of interest. 

I'm joined by two of the authors on this important work. The first is Dr. Michael Halpern, he’s the Medical Officer in the Health Assessment Research Branch of the Health Care Delivery Research Program. Welcome, Dr. Halpern.

Dr. Michael Halpern: Thank you for having us on.

Shannon Westin: We're also accompanied by Dr. Emily Tonorezos, the Director of the Office of Cancer Survivorship, and both of them work in the Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences at the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health. Welcome. 

Dr. Emily Tonorezos: Thank you for having us.

Shannon Westin: So, let's get right into it. I want to level set first. I would love for one or both of you to speak a little bit about the state of cancer survivorship currently. What's the prevalence of cancer survivors here in the US? Globally? What do we expect as time passes?

Dr. Emily Tonorezos: Thank you for starting with this question. In the Office of Cancer Survivorship, we use a definition of cancer survivor that we got from the advocacy community many years ago. We use a definition that says “a person is a cancer survivor from the time of diagnosis through the balance of life.” That means in the United States, we estimate that we have a little over 18 million cancer survivors, and globally, it's a little more difficult to estimate those numbers. Not every country has a cancer registry to count the number of cases, but we think there are upwards of 53 million cancer survivors diagnosed within the last five years in the world.

Shannon Westin: Wow. And so this is why it's so important, such a large number, and that's just an estimate. And we know this is only going to be growing. I personally learned so much from your manuscript, which is critically based on the understanding that our beliefs as practitioners truly impact the way we care for our cancer survivors. I admit, I definitely held or hold some of these beliefs, and I'm certainly grateful that you're providing that objective evidence to support or refute these claims. 

So, with that being said, let's tackle the first one that you all approached: Shared care results in the best outcomes for cancer survivors. I think first I'd love to hear about what your definition of shared care is. What does that really mean in the context of cancer survivorship?

Dr. Michael Halpern: Shared care is a deliberate process to coordinate and integrate components of survivorship care between specialty, in this case, oncology providers, and primary care providers. And part of the issues with this belief about shared care being the best have to do with the broad practice experience of survivorship care. While the ideal definition is this integrated and coordinated care, shared care can range from one extreme to being essentially oncologist-led care - where the oncologist also sends information to the primary care providers; and to the other extreme - care led by primary care providers and an oncologist is available to answer questions as needed. So part of the issue with the available literature is that there is a tremendous range in terms of the definition of shared care that's being used in studies.

Shannon Westin: So, understanding those limitations, obviously, based on what you just said, what have we seen in some of the studies that have been exploring shared care and what it might mean for cancer survivors?

Dr. Michael Halpern: So there have been some wonderful studies and some very well-done research in shared care. The majority of it indicates essentially no benefits, not any worse, but definitely not any better than other survivorship care models among multiple domains, quality of life, patient preference, clinical outcomes, in some cases, costs. So there isn't at this point a rationale for believing that shared care leads to better outcomes than does other types of models of care. And that's not to say that we don't think that shared care is a valuable model, that it's potentially very useful and beneficial for certain groups of cancer survivors. It's just that at this point, we don't have evidence to say who it is going to have optimal outcomes for compared to other kinds of survivorship care models. 

Shannon Westin: And that makes sense. I mean, I think we're seeing this over and over again in all aspects of cancer care that one broad stroke or one broad plan isn't right for everybody, whether that's therapeutic or surgical or prevention, so it makes sense to me that that's what we're seeing here in survivorship as well. So I see this manuscript as a call to action about what are we missing, what data do we need to generate to really be able to move this care forward. So that makes total sense to me. And I guess in line with that, another belief, and I've heard this all the time from my patients, too, is this idea that primary care providers feel unable to provide survivorship care. They're not comfortable. “Oh, you have a diagnosis of cancer. You have to be seen there at the cancer center.” What does our evidence demonstrate here?

Dr. Emily Tonorezos: This is another belief that was found to be a presumption. So that means that this is a belief that we think was true, but which convincing evidence does not confirm or disprove. So what the available evidence tells us is that primary care providers do have challenges in taking care of cancer survivors, particularly with regards to certain cancer-related care needs. But at the same time, we found lots of evidence that primary care providers are more than willing and able to take care of cancer survivors. They express confidence in their skills. They think that they are capable of taking care of cancer survivors. And especially for survivors of more common cancers, primary care providers, in general, express a lot of confidence in their ability to take care of those patients. What they might lack could be things along the lines of survivorship-specific knowledge. So that is a gap that we identified. But this idea that primary care feels unable to take care of survivors really was not supported by the evidence.

Shannon Westin: I mean, and that makes sense, right? If we're seeing more and more cancer survivors, primary care is going to adapt to that. We adapt to the things we see commonly in our clinics, and that goes across all specialties. So that certainly makes sense. I guess you've already kind of said this, and I'll just highlight it for the listeners. You know, clear guidelines seem to be a clear, nice option to potentially improve this situation. 

So let's discuss this next myth that you all identified, that oncology providers are hesitant to transition survivors to primary care. Now, I understand this one because I definitely, we get this a lot, and I'm a center medical director in GYN, and we've definitely tried to put patients that are free of disease out back in the community to be able to free up space for other patients. And we definitely get pushback because seeing patients that are in this state of being free of disease and they're living their life, it's inspiring. We remember why it is we're doing the things we do. What did the data show us about this myth? And are we creating barriers to this transition to survivorship care outside of the oncology centers?

Dr. Emily Tonorezos: Exactly. So this belief is a myth. We found evidence that this belief is not true, and it seems to be one of those things that feels true, that oncologists want to take care of cancer survivors, that it contributes to the joy of medicine. But that evidence really does not suggest that that's the case. In fact, the opposite is true in the evidence. We found when we looked at the available research Oncologists want to take care of people who are diagnosed with cancer and need treatment. That is really what they think their role is. That's what they feel they're contributing. And so, even though there is a pleasure in seeing a person who has finished treatment, most oncologists say that the amount of time that they spend taking care of people who are done with treatment is appropriate - meaning they're not looking to expand their panel of post-treatment patients. They really want to take care of people who need treatment currently and then perhaps have a little bit mixed in of people who are done with treatment or who are in that survivorship phase.

We found a lot of evidence, also hard evidence, that oncologists are, in fact, transitioning survivors to primary care. There is a lot of evidence that people who have been diagnosed with cancer are being seen in primary care and that that proportion increases over time. So if oncologists were really creating these insurmountable barriers to transition to primary care, we would not be seeing so many survivors in the primary care setting. But the fact is they're there, and they are being moved there by their providers.

Shannon Westin: I love hard evidence. I do have a few patients that have said, "Can I just come see you every once in a while?" And I love seeing them, but I agree, we can't fill our panels with that. So that makes good sense. 

So the next topic centers around finances, and this is the idea that survivorship clinics lose money. What truth did you all discover here regarding reimbursement for this type of care? 

Dr. Michael Halpern: We discovered that this is a presumption. It's a belief that there isn't compelling evidence one way or the other. Part of the issue with this is probably some confusion about what constitutes survivorship care. There are certainly difficulties in obtaining reimbursement for certain survivorship services, such as sexual health and fertility counseling, and wellness and exercise services. It's understandable that there may be problems getting reimbursement or appropriate reimbursement for those. But when looking at overall survivorship care, there are actually very few studies that have done a financial analysis of the cost of providing that care versus the reimbursement. And those that have done more detailed analyses generally show that the reimbursement for survivorship care is greater than the cost. Survivorship care clinics actually do break even or make money. 

Now, it's also true that providing survivorship care likely doesn't provide the same level of reimbursement as providing oncology treatments, which involves administering systemic agents and different kinds of imaging or diagnostic procedures. And so there are other streams of reimbursement possible for that. But overall, there really isn’t compelling evidence to indicate that survivorship clinics lose money. There is a concern that having this widespread belief that they do may be a disincentive for hospitals or healthcare systems to start different kinds of survivorship clinics.

Shannon Westin: I think this is an area where it would really behoove us to do more work so that we can encourage institutions to do this. And, I know in our center, the things that you're mentioning, it's exactly like the problems that these people are having around sexual health and fertility and exercise, wellness in general, I mean, those are the soft things that I feel like it's harder to kind of gain momentum to really develop established programs that really make an impact. And so I was so glad to see that you mentioned that in this paper, and I hope it will encourage people to really move that forward. 

So finally, I was interested in this presumption around the shared electronic health records and how that might help with survivorship care coordination. Is this our solution for smooth communication and care of these people?

Dr. Emily Tonorezos: This one was actually almost something that's sort of funny to think about, how naive we were about electronic health records. We found a number of examples from five or ten years ago where leaders in survivorship research and clinical care were saying, "Well, once we have electronic health records, we will not have these same problems of care coordination or communication." And that has just not been true, unfortunately. So this one was also a presumption, meaning the evidence of a benefit for electronic health records just was not out there. So we know that consolidation and transfer of diagnostic and treatment information can increase knowledge. So you can show that you can increase knowledge about diagnosis and treatment with a shared electronic health record. So the primary care provider is able to look, for example, at the pathology from the original diagnosis. But whether that actually results in anything in terms of improved care is an open question.

Shannon Westin:I think that's what we've learned a lot about electronic health records in general. I remember when we were transitioning to our new system, and everyone thought, "Oh, this is going to be the end all, be all." And it has been good in a lot of ways, but it certainly hasn't been the cure for everything that ails us. 

Well, I'm just so thrilled. Thank you all so much. This has been really educational and so important, given what we've already talked about, about the increasing population of cancer survivors that we're seeing in the clinic and globally. I think just to kind of tie a bow on it, I would just love to hear each of your bottom lines regarding kind of where we are right now with the care of our cancer survivors and what we need to be addressing maybe in the short term to move things forward.

Dr. Emily Tonorezos: So I'll go first. I just want to say it's really important, I think, when we are around other investigators and in our meetings and talking about clinical care, that we think critically about the things that we hear people saying. This idea, especially the one that oncology providers don't want to transition their survivors to primary care, but the others as well. I think the way that we need to address this or carry this forward is to just be aware when we're in those settings and we hear people say things, to ask the question, "Is that really supported by the evidence?" And you may find that there are even more of these commonly held beliefs that really aren't supported by the evidence or that deserve a little bit of a deeper dive.

Dr. Michael Halpern: I very much agree with that. And it's critical that we be willing to question some of these beliefs, be willing to discuss them, and not accept them as facts in order to be able to develop new research programs, hypotheses, to explore really what can help produce the best outcomes for survivors, because that's really what we're all about.  

The other bottom-line issue, I think, one, Dr. Westing that you brought up, is that survivorship isn't a one-size-fits-all. The best survivorship care is the care that is tailored towards the survivor - the individual needs and wants. What kind of supports will be most effective in terms of enhancing their health? So, we really need to pay attention to the individual and, most importantly, what outcomes for survivorship care matter most to the survivor? What do they want to see happen? What do they want their subsequent future to look like? And how do we measure those outcomes to ensure that they get the best care on the terms that they want? 

Shannon Westin: Well, great. I think that's a perfect place to end. I just want to, again, thank my guests. This went by so fast, and I learned a ton, and I hope all of you did as well. Again, we were discussing the Comments and Controversies manuscript "Myths and Presumptions about Cancer Survivorship" published in the JCO on November 16, 2023. 

Thank you again to our listeners for joining JCO After Hours. And please do check out our other offerings wherever you get your podcasts. Have an awesome day. 

The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions.  

Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. Guest statements on the podcast do not express the opinions of ASCO. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.