By Gustaf Salford
Global disparities in access to quality health care are not new, but their seemingly entrenched nature cannot be a cause for complacency.
Somewhat paradoxically, every new medical breakthrough splashed across front pages and television screens of developed economies increases disparities as health care systems in low- and middle-income struggle to acquire and implement new technologies and therapeutics. While drug access programs sponsored by non-governmental organizations or pharmaceutical companies may make some medical therapies available to more patients, expanding access to health care that requires medical device infrastructure is more challenging. Consequently, there are significant disparities in access to radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer.
Radiation therapy is needed by 50%-60% of cancer patients globally. Yet, despite it being a pillar of cancer therapy, low- and middle-income countries have access to only 32% of global radiation therapy resources even though they bear 80% of the global cancer burden. Even within developed economies, access to radiation therapy may vary based on geography or socioeconomic status, with cutting-edge radiation care more readily available in large cities with academic centers dedicated to cancer care and research than in rural community hospitals.
Effectively addressing global disparities in cancer care and outcomes requires increasing access to cutting-edge radiation therapy. Moreover, while there are decades of data demonstrating the safety and efficacy of traditional radiation therapy approaches in diverse cancer indications, more recent advances in radiation therapy technology now enable personalized regimens adapted to each patient’s anatomy and to the unique characteristics of their tumors. Personalized cancer therapy often brings to mind medicines that target specific tumor-associated proteins expressed in a patient’s tumor, or cell therapies made from a patient’s own T-cells. However, in the context of addressing global health disparities, it is critical to expand our concept of personalized therapy beyond the modality of treatment used, and to focus on the individual who is being treated.
Innovators of cutting-edge radiation therapy systems have critical roles to play in helping to address disparities and expand access to potentially life-saving care. A key challenge to making radiation therapy more broadly available is that the number of patients treated is dependent on the number and location of radiation therapy devices. Advanced radiation therapy may only be available in one or a few large centers in a country, placing significant burdens on patients who must travel large distances to reach these sites. Manufacturers of radiation therapy technologies can help address this disparity by establishing corporate programs or supporting other organizations that are committed to making radiation therapy broadly available to the millions of people with cancer in underserved markets around the world