Give all Canadians access to breakthrough cancer therapies, says report

Life and Health Professional: Study urges reforms to help Canadians navigate increasingly fragmented and inequitable system

Give all Canadians access to breakthrough cancer therapies, says report

Cancer is the leading cause of death among Canadians, including 83,300 lives that were lost in 2020 alone. And while new breakthrough treatments are available to curb the problem, many in Canada will not be able to access them – and a new report is calling for change.

According to the research from the Conference Board of Canada, which was launched on World Cancer Day, countless Canadians in need are facing a variety of impediments in accessing cancer care.

“The treatments are available. … The lack of equity in patient access across Canada is concerning,” said Chad Leaver, director of the Health Knowledge Area at the Conference Board of Canada. “In comparison with other countries, we are lagging far behind."

According to the report, Canada ranks 18th out of 20 OECD countries in terms of its capacity to complete the difficult pricing negotiations that allow physicians to obtain them for their patients through provincial plans.

An estimated two in five Canadians are diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, and one in four will die from the disease. In 2020 alone, 225,800 Canadians were diagnosed with the disease.

Determining how many Canadians are actually living with cancer has become more challenging amid the pandemic, which has caused a massive backlog in cancer diagnosis. That delay, the report said, underscores the need for governments, industry, and researchers to act and accelerate change.

Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy were the only treatment options available in the past. However, breakthrough medicines can improve the chances of survival while avoiding the drawbacks of earlier treatments. With the advent of personalized or precision medicine, new advanced therapies are able to target the genes, tissues, or cells that are specifically responsible for cancer growth.

But despite the availability of cutting-edge treatments that selectively target cancer-causing genes, tissues, or cells, patients in Canada face a long wait for breakthrough treatments, owing to the inequitable access to breakthrough therapies that exist in the country.

Up to 60% of Canadian patients may be qualified for some medicines even if they do not have access. Nevertheless, pharmaceutical coverage, care coordination, and diagnostic service availability differ between and within provinces. Additionally, patients in Canada also have less opportunities to participate in groundbreaking clinical trials, which are generally the first step in the development of new sophisticated medicines.

The cumulative benefits of the breakthrough cancer treatments it studied, the report said, can potentially add up to 226,445 life years gained and $5.9 billion in potential economic value across five tumour types over the last decade.

The Conference Board of Canada suggested four improvements that might help patients get timely access to new cancer treatments:

  • Streamlining government processes for health technology review and pricing negotiations for breakthrough treatments;
  • Change the way these medicines are paid for to make value-based care and risk-sharing agreements more feasible;
  • When breakthrough treatments are authorized, provide funding for diagnostic tests;
  • Expand and integrate data collection and sharing systems.