Last month at the 23rd Annual Conference of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH), Center Professor Leonard Fleck, PhD, presented on “Precision Health, Ethical Ambiguity: How Much Cancer Can We Afford to Prevent?” as part of a session on health care allocation and cost. Dr. Fleck has provided a summary of his presentation below.
“Precision medicine” and “precision health” seem to complement one another. We want an effective targeted cancer therapy for our metastatic cancer, but would rationally prefer to prevent the emergence of a life-threatening cancer–the goal of precision health. In a recent book, The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last, Azra Raza, an oncologist, argues that we are wasting tens of billions of dollars annually on extraordinarily expensive cancer therapies that yield only marginal gains in life expectancy. Raza believes these resources (not resources from heart disease or anything else) should be redirected to destroying cancer in its earliest stages, those “first cells.”
A new liquid biopsy (GRAIL) can detect 50 different cancers in very early stages by examining cell-free DNA at a cost of $800. However, 200 million anxious U.S. adults would be candidates for this test annually at an aggregate cost of $160 billion. From the perspective of health care justice, who should pay for these tests? Who should be denied access to these tests at social expense? Should only individuals with a strong family history of cancer have a moral right to this test at social expense? That would cover only 10% of cancers diagnosed in any given year.
We might say individuals known to be at elevated risk for cancer should have these tests paid for as a social expense. That would include smokers and sun worshippers at risk for lung cancer and melanoma. Would non-smokers and responsible sunscreen appliers have just cause for a grievance, i.e., paying for the irresponsible?
Would justice or efficiency require foregoing $160 billion in metastatic cancer care to pay for this preventive effort? What would a “just enough” balancing of therapeutic objectives look like? The basic economic and ethical problem is that we would be paying $160 billion annually that we knew would yield negative results more than 99% of the time. This is not obviously either a wise or just use of social resources. Moreover, this situation calls attention to the “statistical lives vs. identifiable lives” problem.
The “statistical lives” are the lives we would hope to save from metastatic cancer with the liquid biopsy test. These are nameless and faceless lives, unlike the identifiable lives that are the patients with metastatic cancer who want access to the hyper-expensive targeted therapies that might extend their lives a few months, maybe an extra year or so. In contrast, the hope is that each statistical life saved would result in extra decades of life for that individual.
A key ethical question is whether statistical lives and identifiable lives in this situation are of equal moral weight. Or are the identifiable lives with metastatic cancer more “morally worthy” of social resources because they are suffering and near dying? Or, as Raza contends, are we ethically obligated to shift resources from metastatic cancer patients (who have been effectively treated up to this point) to preventive efforts associated with liquid biopsies hoping to save more lives and life years? How do you, my currently healthy readers, think we ought to decide?