CANCER patients are being given expensive drugs that extend their lives by just a few months or provide no benefit, risking a health budget blow-out. Cancer researcher Deme Karikios said the total cost to the federal government of subsidising cancer drugs had risen from $65 million to more than $500 million in the decade to 2010.
"We are seeing some drugs approved that extend median survival by only a few months, yet they add hundreds of millions of dollars to health system costs,'' Dr Karikios, from the University of Sydney, said.
''Many are asking whether that money could be better spent."
Much of the increase was due to the ''explosion'' of new cancer drugs in recent years.
Dr Karikios' research, conducted through the National Health and Medical Research Council Clinical Trials Centre, found the average cost of a newly listed cancer drug through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in 2010 was $5000 per month.
''We need to rethink how drugs are approved in Australia, or hard decisions may need to be made in future about which drugs patients can access.''
It was important for researchers and clinicians to identify those patients for whom new treatments would be effective, Dr Karikios said.
''So if a study says 20 per cent of patients with a type of cancer will benefit from a particular drug, we need to try and pick out who that 20 per cent will be and get the drug to them.''
The over-prescribing of medicines likely extended to other rapidly-developing areas of medicine, he said.
Dr Karikios presented his findings at the Clinical Oncological Society of Australia's annual scientific conference on Wednesday. The Society's president, Bogda Koczwara, said Australian patients benefited from quick access to new cancer drugs, but it was important clinicians remained up-to-date with research and the response of their patients to drugs.
''Clinicians need to be responsible with how they are prescribing medicines and hopefully new technologies for molecular profiling of cancer treatments will help us with that,'' she said.
''Clinicians also need better access to patient data to see how they are responding to treatments in real time.''
The fast-moving nature of cancer research and steady stream of new drugs made it difficult for oncologists to be across everything, so education and access to information was important, Professor Koczwara said.
''In a way, we are victims of our own success. We have a wealth of new treatments now available to us, but we need to work very hard to make sure we keep up.''