How Proton Beams Are a Metaphor for Our Broken Health Care System


Via Austin Frakt, here’s a lovely little chart from a Brookings report that helps explain why health care costs in the United States are so stubbornly hard to control. It shows the growth in proton beam facilities, which Kaiser Health News describes as an “arms race” between hospitals. These facilities are the size of a football field and cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct.

Which might be OK if PRT were truly an advance in treating cancer. Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that it is, even though it costs far more than old-school IMRT radiotherapy. Here’s the conclusion from a recent study of prostate cancer cases:

Although PRT is substantially more costly than IMRT, there was no difference in toxicity in a comprehensive cohort of Medicare beneficiaries with prostate cancer at 12 months post-treatment.

In other words, the supposed advantage of PRT—that it targets cancers more precisely and has fewer toxic side effects—doesn’t seem to be true. It might be better in certain very specialized cases, but not for garden variety prostate cancer.

And yet, new facilities are being constructed at a breakneck pace. Why? Because if they build them, patients will come. “They’re simply done to generate profits,” says health care advisor Ezekiel Emanuel. Roger that.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate