Prostate cancer 'death star' explodes health cost
NEW YORK -- Imagine a prostate cancer therapy that has almost no side effects. Hospitals say it exists and they're vying to be among the first to offer it. Too bad the treatment may not work as well as advertised and could boost America's already spiraling health-care costs.
The technology uses narrowly focused proton beams to deliver precisely targeted blasts of radiation. The particle beams are delivered by 500-ton machines in facilities that cost from $100 million to $200 million, and can require a football- field sized building to house. A typical treatment costs about $50,000, twice as much as traditional radiation therapy though it is usually covered by Medicare or private insurance.
For U.S. taxpayers and employers facing spiraling health- care costs, that's a worry.
"Proton-beam therapy is like the death star of American medical technology; nothing so big and complicated has ever been confronted by the system," said Amitabh Chandra, a health economist at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "It's a metaphor for all the problems we have in American medicine."
Yet even though the machines are breathtakingly expensive, hospitals and for-profit clinics are in a race to build proton- beam facilities for their prestige, perceived benefits, and potential revenue. One machine can generate as much as $50 million in annual revenue and new facilities are sprouting up around the country.
"It's like a nuclear arms race now, everyone wants one," said Anthony Zietman, a radiation oncologist at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, which has had a proton-beam accelerator since 2001.
Proponents of the technology say it can zap cancerous tumors without damage to surrounding tissue. That's a major benefit for the relatively small number of people who suffer from tumors of the spine, brain and eyes, where stray radiation may blind or paralyze, or in children who are more sensitive to radiation.
The therapy has even wider appeal for treating prostate cancer, a much more common disease, since existing treatment often causes rectal bleeding as well as impotence. More than 240,000 American men were diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011, making it the nation's most-diagnosed tumor, according to the American Cancer Society. Most of those men are potential candidates for proton-beam therapy. Read full long article