How Can We Improve What We Know About the Quality of Cancer Care?

For many aspects of cancer care, it is not yet possible to assess quality because the first step in quality assessment has not been taken—the conduct of clinical trials. Consequently, for many types of cancer, answers to the following basic questions are not yet available:

  • How frequently should patients be evaluated following their primary cancer therapy, what tests should be included in the follow-up regimen, and who should provide follow-up care?
  • What is the most effective way to manage recurrent cancers, or cancers first identified at late stages?

RECOMMENDATION 6: Federal and private research sponsors such as the National Cancer Institute, the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, and various health plans should invest in clinical trials to address questions about cancer care management.

For some questions regarding cancer management, a health services research component could possibly be integrated into a clinical trial designed to assess the efficacy of a new treatment. For other questions, innovative units of randomization could be used, for example, randomizing providers (instead of patients) to test different clinical management strategies. Such trials have been used to assess educational and service delivery topics (e.g., colorectal screening performed by nurse clinicians, counseling patients to quit smoking) (U.S. Congress, OTA, 1994).

RECOMMENDATION 7: A cancer data system is needed that can provide quality benchmarks for use by systems of care (such as hospitals, provider groups, and managed care systems).

Toward that end, in 1999, the National Cancer Policy Board will hold workshops to:

  • identify how best to meet the data needs for cancer in light of quality monitoring goals;
  • identify financial and other resources needed to improve the cancer data system to achieve quality-related goals; and
  • develop strategies to improve data available on the quality of cancer care.

The second step of quality assessment involves surveillance—making sure that evidence regarding what works is applied in practice. Ideally, quality assessment studies would include recently diagnosed individuals with cancer in care settings representative of contemporary practice across the country, using information sources with sufficient detail to allow appropriate comparisons.

The available evidence on the quality of cancer care is far from this ideal. In fact, it is difficult to judge the quality of current practice from the published literature because

  • many studies were conducted in the 1980s and do not reflect current practice;


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