Queen’s research: access to essential cancer medicines unequal globally

Queen’s University professor Dr. Christopher Booth. Image via Queen’s University.

According to new research, patients in most countries of the world do not have access to basic cancer medicines. The research, from Queen’s University professor Christopher Booth and collaborators at the World Health Organization (WHO), was published in The Lancet Oncology on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.

The paper, Access to cancer medicines deemed essential by oncologists in 82 countries: an international, cross-sectional survey, asked oncologists worldwide to list the most important cancer medicines and to describe whether patients could access these medicines in their home country, according to a release from Queen’s University.

An Essential Medicines List (EML) was released by the WHO in 1977, and they update the list every two years. This list helps policy-makers worldwide prioritize which medicines to provide for patients, the university said.

Dr. Booth and his team surveyed 948 frontline cancer doctors from 82 countries to learn which cancer medicines they considered the most important for patient care. According to Queen’s, the research team found that the most important medicines identified by oncologists are primarily older, inexpensive chemotherapy and hormone medicines. With one exception, all of the top 20 high-priority cancer medicines are already included on the EML. Oncologists consider these medicines to be the most important because they have large benefits for patients across many common cancers, the research found.

The second major and more concerning finding was that in most health systems, patients are unable to afford even these basic cancer medicines. In lower/middle-income countries, most patients face major financial barriers to accessing anticancer medications—even older, generic, and inexpensive chemotherapy drugs, according to the release. Financial barriers also exist in many high-income countries.

“Our study demonstrates that the most important cancer medicines are not sufficiently prioritized by many government health systems. This leads to limited access to even the most fundamental regimens for cancer care,” the researchers stated.

“The primary reason why medicines are not available to patients is because they are not affordable,” they continued. “This is tragic as most of these medicines are older generic drugs and provide major benefits to patients. These problems are most pressing in low-middle and upper-middle income countries where the rates of cancer are most rapidly escalating.”

Dr. Booth and collaborators highlight “an urgent need for global and country-level policy action to ensure patients with cancer globally have access to affordable high priority effective medicines.”

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