When Is Chemo Not Appropriate?

A new study finds that mortality is significantly higher among patients with advanced solid tumors who are admitted to the hospital for chemotherapy treatment.

The findings – released in a poster session at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology – found that patients with solid tumors were more likely to be treated for nonurgent indications, not be referred to palliative care, and die within 60 days, compared with patients with hematologic malignancies.

Decisions about inpatient chemotherapy should not be uniform and instead should be based on a case-by-case basis, said Natalie Berger, MD, a hematologist-oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital,, New York, and the study’s lead author.

Inpatient chemotherapy can be appropriate in certain situations, such as when chemotherapy must be given in the hospital and when it must be administered quickly after a patient presents with cancer symptoms and needs relief, she said.

However, “sometimes patients are admitted due to infection, side effects of chemotherapy or cancer, or for reasons unrelated to their cancer, and chemotherapy may be administered when it is not appropriate. It is also overutilized at the end of life which can lead to more aggressive end-of-life care rather than focusing on quality of life and supportive care,” Berger said.

The study is based on a retrospective chart review of 880 patients admitted to Mount Sinai Hospital between January 2016 and December 2017 to receive chemotherapy.

They found that the type of tumor was used to determine the urgency of an in-hospital stay for chemotherapy (odds ratio, 0.42; 95% CI, 0.25-0.72; P = .001). Patients with solid tumors or older patients or patients with a functional impairment score (Karnofsky Performance Scale) of 50% were less likely to respond to chemotherapy. There was also a decrease in quality of life among these patients, but only 46% of patients with solid tumors and 15% of patients with hematologic malignancies met with a palliative care professional.

One-third (34%) of patients with solid tumors didn’t have urgent indications, 43% of patients had no response to inpatient chemotherapy, and 20% died within 60 days, compared with patients with hematologic malignancies (19%, 19%, and 9%, respectively).

“There are many reasons why this [high mortality rate in patients with solid tumors] may be happening. Solid tumor patients are more often admitted at a later stage of their cancer when they are sicker, and they were also less likely to have a response to inpatient chemotherapy. Older patients and patients with a poor performance status were also less likely to respond to chemotherapy. This indicates that these patients were sicker, and chemotherapy use may not have been appropriate and palliative care may be underutilized,” she said.

Berger and colleagues have created a standardized protocol to assess “the appropriateness” of inpatient chemotherapy, improve quality of life, and reduce chemotherapy and health care utilization at the end of life. The protocol has been implemented as a pilot program at Mount Sinai Hospital, Berger said.

“Any inpatient chemotherapy case that meets standard accepted criteria for required inpatient administration are auto-approved through the electronic survey. For cases outside of standard criteria, further information must be inputted to determine appropriateness of inpatient treatment and are then scored electronically and reviewed by committee physicians and pharmacists,” she said.

Gabriel A. Brooks, MD, MPH, an oncologist with Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, Lebanon, N.H., who was not affiliated with the study, said that inpatient chemotherapy treatment is under scrutiny elsewhere as well.

“There has been recognition that patients who are otherwise sick enough to require hospital admission are often too sick to benefit from chemotherapy,” although there are exceptions. “There is certainly a movement to limit inpatient chemotherapy to situations where it is most likely to be beneficial. Some of this is driven by cost pressures. For instance, Medicare pays for inpatient hospitalizations using the DRG [diagnosis-related group] system. Hospitals cannot charge a la carte for treatments given in the hospital. Instead, they are reimbursed at a fixed rate based on the hospital diagnoses. This will often lead to poor reimbursement of high-cost cancer treatments.”

Brooks said the study offers insight into who’s getting inpatient chemotherapy. However, “what I can’t tell from this poster is how often the solid tumor patients are getting first-line chemotherapy [as] these patients may be presenting late or may have a potentially treatable cancer with a narrow closing window for treatment versus later-line chemotherapy.”

He also noted that patient and family wishes are missing from the research. “This is critical. Patients and families should be informed that inpatient chemotherapy may not provide the benefit they are hoping for, especially for patients with solid tumors starting later lines of therapy. Patients should be informed that there are alternatives to inpatient chemotherapy, such as hospice referral or waiting for possible outpatient treatment – if their condition improves. But when a patient wants to try inpatient chemotherapy and their doctor wants to offer it, then it is likely a reasonable thing to try.”

Going forward, he said, “qualitative study is needed to better understand when and why inpatient chemotherapy is used. There are likely some clear good uses and some clear bad uses of inpatient chemotherapy. Can outpatient regimens be substituted for the regimens where patients are directly admitted? Or, can outpatient protocols be devised for these regimens? Are there specific situations where inpatient chemotherapy is the right thing (leukemia, esophageal cancer with worsening dysphagia, etc.)?”

No study funding was received.

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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