Hypofractionated radiation treatment (HRT) is a great example of how technology is transforming the fight against cancer. This method improves upon conventional treatment by concentrating larger doses of cancer-killing therapy in fewer sessions. Although HRT was first used more than a century ago, it wasn’t sustainable because of the damage caused to surrounding tissues. Thanks to tremendous advancements in radiation technology since then, especially in the last decade or so, HRT has become an accepted practical and cost-effective approach.
Compared to conventional radiation treatment, HRT allows healthcare professionals to achieve the same result for patients with fewer treatment sessions using fewer resources, and at about half the cost. New and more efficient cancer innovations like HRT can create a “leapfrogging” effect with substantial gains for patients throughout the world. It is already helping to simplify and speed treatment in the U.S. and other high-income countries as well, generating substantial cost savings in infrastructure and human resources. If HRT were widely implemented in Africa, the potential savings over seven years would be $1.1 billion for breast cancer and $606 million for prostate cancer.
Even with these kinds of technological advancements, the dwindling supply of trained pathologists poses a major challenge to achieving the Biden’s goal. This is a universal problem, and it’s only growing as aging populations increase the demand for cancer care. Even before the pandemic, countries such as Canada and the UK were sounding the alarm over the shortage of pathologists, warning that it was directly responsible for delays in cancer diagnoses.
It is imperative that plans to invest in health care “future proofing” address the need for more pathologists and invest wisely in ways to augment pathology services. That means incorporating new imaging technologies backed by high-powered AI that can bridge the gap by reading pathology imaging, providing expert insights and helping eliminate errors even when pathologists are not available in some locations. And critically, pathologists need training on how to work with these technologies to optimize their use.
Even in high-income countries, geographic accessibility to experts is a problem. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology, 32 million Americans live in a county without a pathologist. Urban counties have 20 times more oncologists per square mile than rural counties. Virtual tumor boards are helping to solve this problem, bringing together multidisciplinary teams to help local physicians assess patient cases and develop treatment plans. Consultations can be made with physicians all over the world through secure online sharing of digital images and charts, and live video conferences. This approach to care has also been shown to reduce travel time for patients while potentially improving adherence. For physicians, it enables valuable networking across clinical centers with different types of expertise.
President Biden’s moonshot is as ambitious as it is significant. To meaningfully improve the lives of cancer patients, we must harness the leapfrogging opportunities created by improving technology and scientific advancements. Robust, interoperable data sets that can feed and enhance machine learning are needed at the policy level. This starts with training and education across the health care sector to build the necessary skills in digital technology and data science. And we need to establish clear and consistent regulatory guidance for safeguarding patient privacy.
Putting these policies into practice will enable leapfrogging in cancer care, just as it has for finance, technology and other industries. The cancer moonshot spotlights the need to reinvigorate the global fight against cancer. We can achieve its ambitious goal if we work together and efficiently use all available technologies and resources at hand.