WHEN it comes to cancer, many healthcare professionals advocate early detection to increase the chances of successful treatment. In reality, this is hardly the case. Although there are no Malaysian-centric statistics, research has shown that almost 50% of cancer patients in Britain are diagnosed late, making treatment less likely to succeed and reducing their chances of survival.
What this means is we need to ensure that patients with late diagnosis are able to access treatment without compromising their quality of life.
Renal cell carcinoma (RCC) or kidney cancer is often diagnosed late. This is because the symptoms for RCC are similar to those of other diseases and may only surface in the late stages. In fact, 49% of patients in Malaysia are diagnosed with RCC when the cancer is in the final stage (Stage IV). A study showed that the five-year survival rate of patients with Stage IV RCC was only 13%.
Kidney cancer is among the top 10 cancers in Western communities. According to the 2007 Malaysia National Cancer Registry Report, RCC accounts for 43.8% of new kidney cancers. However, these statistics are quite dated as it has been nine years since the data was collected.
Advances in medical research have led to new treatment modules. A revised healthcare policy should ideally be aligned with innovation in cancer treatments. Despite new targeted therapies being approved for use in the US and Europe, these therapies are still limited in most parts of South-East Asia, including Malaysia. And even if they are available in the market, patients have to purchase the drugs from private medical facilities, excluding the majority of Malaysians (75%) who seek treatment at government hospitals.
In the treatment for RCC, there is only one drug approved in the government formulary. More options are needed because a single drug may not be right for every patient. For those who are not able to respond to this particular treatment, access to an alternative drug is often a lengthy and uncertain process. For some patients, the options available to them are so dismal, there is almost a case of no option at all.
In developed countries, drug choices are fully funded by the government, leading to patients having equal access to various drugs of treatment that best suit them. In Malaysia, drug choices are limited. Patients may have to pay out-of-pocket to access these treatments, putting them in a financial dilemma of cost versus survival.
In fact, a recent study by Universiti Malaya showed that 5% of cancer patients and their families were pushed into poverty, and that cancer resulted in “financial catastrophe” for almost half of the patients who suffered from economic hardship.
The policy of approving new drugs is based on an analysis of the quality of life years patients gain versus the cost of the drug. Unfortunately, drug affordability is determined by pharmaceutical companies based on the affordability of developed countries. This leads to a mismatch in drug affordability in a country like Malaysia, where Malaysians have a diverse range of economic situations. Furthermore, no matter how clinically effective a drug is touted to be, no drug has been approved in the government formulary in recent years.
Cancer is set to be a major burden of disease worldwide and the leading cause of morbidity and mortality. It is imperative for policy makers to review and update the targeted cancer therapy treatments currently available in the national formulary so that efficacious medicines are accessible to the majority of the population in public hospitals.
We hope increased funding will be made available to assist patients in their treatment, allowing them to live longer with a better quality of life and without putting them at risk of financial catastrophe.
While Malaysia’s public healthcare system continues to evolve to meet the needs of a growing and aging population as well as alarming rate of non-communicable diseases (NCD), let us be aware of the imperative need for this country to also keep abreast of breakthrough therapies available for patients and to champion for these therapies to be accessible at our public hospitals.
Cancer does not discriminate. Every patient, regardless of their economic status or cancer stage, deserves access to treatment.
DATUK DR MOHD IBRAHIM ABDUL WAHID
Medical Director, Beacon International Medical Centre
Vice President of College of Radiology (COR) Malaysia