Health Care Disparities Might Affect Black Kids' Cancer Survival

TUESDAY May 1, 2012 -- Equal access to health care would reduce the disparity in survival rates between white and black children with cancer, a new study suggests.

Researchers from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., found that access to clinical trials and more expensive treatments, such as bone marrow transplants, helped improve outcomes for children with cancer regardless of their ability to pay. This was particularly true, they noted, for those with advanced or complex forms of cancer.

In conducting the study, researchers compared the outcomes of more than 4,000 St. Jude patients and nearly 24,000 pediatric patients treated at various U.S. medical centers for 19 different forms of cancer. Of the St. Jude patients, 19 percent were black and about 75 percent were white. Of the patients treated at various U.S. hospitals, about 10 percent were black and about 58 percent were white.

Among the children treated at St. Jude, the study found almost no difference in survival rates between white and black patients for nearly all cancers during a 15-year period. During this time, the study authors pointed out, the nation's overall five-year pediatric cancer survival rate surpassed 80 percent due to medical advancements.

Only children who had some rare types of cancer and advanced forms of the disease when treatment began did not have improved outcomes, the investigators noted.

In contrast, the study, which was published in the April 30 online edition of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, showed that many black children across the United States are not benefiting from the progress that has been made in pediatric cancer treatment.

The study revealed that these children had significantly worse outcomes than white patients with the same type of cancer. Although the gap in survival rates for patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and Hodgkin lymphoma narrowed during the 15-year study, the gap widened for children with acute myeloid leukemia and neuroblastoma, a tumor of the nervous system.

"These findings flow directly from [St. Jude founder] Danny Thomas's strong view that to conquer childhood cancer, treatment must be equally available across all racial and ethnic groups, which has been the case at St. Jude since [Thomas] opened the doors in 1962," Dr. William Evans, the study's co-author and St. Jude's CEO, said in a hospital news release.

The study authors said that equal access to care is vital to improve survival rates for children with cancer.

"This study shows that with outstanding medical care and psychosocial support, [black] patients should not necessarily fare worse than white patients," the study's lead author, Dr. Ching-Hon Pui, chairman of the St. Jude department of oncology, said in the news release.

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more about racial disparities in health care.

Posted: May 2012


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