Selling Proton Therapy to the Public: High Costs Without Benefit

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Jaime McClennen


Arriving in a train station in a Northeast city the other day, I was struck by the number of advertisements for proton therapy at a local academic medical center (AMC) plastered throughout the station and in local subways. The ads feature a bicycle racer with the tag line: “THE WIND IN YOUR FACE IS WORTH PROTON THERAPY: A cancer treatment that has fewer side effects.”

A bold statement, I thought, considering several studies have shown that proton therapy provides no long-term benefit over traditional radiation and comes with significantly higher cost for most conditions. There are a limited number of conditions—such as pediatric oncology—where proton therapy is shown to be effective.  Most striking, however, was the fact that this ad was specifically created to target a public that is not aware of proton therapy’s marginal benefit and in what limited conditions it is effective.

“Marginal benefit” is when two procedures have small differences in benefits but large cost differences. Usually the more expensive intervention yields more benefits, like fewer side effects. But in this case, we have a procedure with no added benefits that is a lot more expensive.

Proton therapy uses atomic particles to treat cancer rather than X-rays. The particle accelerator is the size of a football field and costs about $180 million. According to the Yale study, Medicare pays over $32,000 for the treatment compared to under $19,000 for radiation. When applied to treat prostate cancer, outcomes were no different than intensity-modulated radiotherapy. Urinary function side effects were slightly better within six months but those advantages disappeared with 12 months post-therapy.

The ad directly contradicts the findings of this study and claims that proton therapy has fewer side effects than traditional therapy. This claim is true for pediatric cases but not for prostate cancer, the one primarily targeted by these ads.

What bothers me the most is that an AMC is peddling a more expensive procedure with no clear added benefit to the public through a massive advertising campaign. Isn’t there a moral imperative for an AMC to work in the best interest of their community based on the best available clinical evidence? Isn’t this supposed to be the era of value services? If they must advertise the therapy (possibly to recoup some of their costs or at least break even), why not target referring physicians rather than an unsuspecting public that is prone to request the latest and greatest technology just because it’s new? Perhaps referring physicians are wise to the lack of proton therapy’s marginal benefit and the AMC is hoping they will acquiesce to their patients’ demand for this marginal procedure. Is the public to know what cases are best for this type of therapy and for which conditions it is not well suited?

We should expect more and we should demand better. Proton therapy is clearly a more expensive procedure where a just-as-effective procedure exists. Quality and safety has not been raised, only the cost of medicine.


Daniel B. Wolfson
EVP and COO, ABIM Foundation