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Cancer Patients Falling into Poverty in Southeast Asia

Publisher/Author : Pacific Cross

December, 2015 (Adapted from

In Southeast Asia five percent of cancer patients and their immediate relatives were pushed below the poverty line between March 2012 and September 2013, because of high medical expenses, according to a study presented at the first ESMO Asia Congress held in Singapore.

The research was conducted earlier this year, and evaluated data from eight low and middle-income Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) to assess patient risk of financial catastrophe (medical expenditures exceeding 30% of annual household income), economic hardship (inability to make necessary household payments) and impoverishment (living on less than 2 US dollars per day), and the association between economic struggles and risk of death. The study shows that cancer resulted in ‘financial catastrophe’ for almost half of the patients who suffered from economic hardship at the time of diagnosis.

Out-of-pocket healthcare expenditure could adversely affect a person’s life, both directly and indirectly, potentially affecting quality of life, compliance and death risk. From the results of the study, up to 20% of patients did not attend their medical appointments or could not pay for medicines. Disadvantaged patients had an 80% higher risk of death within 12 months following diagnosis compared to those patients without economic difficulties at the time of diagnosis.

Professor Christoph Zielinski, Medical University of Vienna, Austria, ESMO Board Member and Editor-in-Chief of ESMO Open-Cancer Horizons, said when commenting on the study, “Cancer places a significant financial burden on patients, even in middle- and high-income countries. It is therefore no surprise that patients in low and middle-income countries face a relatively larger burden upon their diagnosis. While early detection of cancer can somewhat alleviate this financial burden, patients are still in a precarious situation and are at risk of financial catastrophe.”

“Cancer can be an even more terrible disease for poor or socially underprivileged people, and cancer treatment costs constitute only a portion of the problem. Cancer is also linked to morbidity resulting from treatment side-effects, evolvement of the underlying disease, resulting in the inability to follow basic tasks of daily life requiring support by the immediate surroundings, and even terminally severe restrictions in work abilities. Some or many of these aspects can be neutralised by appropriate social programmes, albeit lots of problems remain or become only slightly alleviated by even the best of social systems.”

Advanced cancer stages, no health insurance, low income, unemployment and lowest level of education were listed as potential sources of household financial crisis in the prior phase of the ASEAN Costs In ONcology (ACTION) study. “Cancer stage explained most of the financial catastrophic risk and premature deaths observed in the study”, said senior author, Dr. Nirmala Bhoo-Pathy of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “However, low-income patients remained financially vulnerable, even when diagnosed at very early cancer stages. There appeared to be missed opportunities for surgery in patients with operable malignancies, particularly in low-income groups. Patients without health insurance also remained at higher risk of incurring catastrophic expenditures and dying, even in early stages”.

In Southeast Asia approximately 1.7 million new cancer cases are reported by The World Health Organization (WHO) every year, and the prevalence of cancer mortality is expected to be up to 45% higher in 2030. “Southeast Asia is population- and area-wise comparable to the European Union (EU),”

Zielinski said. “However, the similarities end here, as countries of Southeast Asia have a completely different social insurance and security structure, as compared to the EU, and although economic growth is impressive, individual income structures are quite restricted”.

Plans to limit the negative financial impact on cancer patients from low- and middle-income countries should be of the highest importance, as are plans for treating the disease. According to health policy expert Professor Tikki Pang of the National University of Singapore, many would be possible options. “Screening programmes for early detection is a proven strategy in many countries to reduce cancer-related direct and indirect costs, as well as education and awareness raising among the population,” he said. “Innovative health insurance models, e.g. a mix of public and private, may also be a useful strategy but each country must decide what schemes suits them best. Another strategy could be promoting the production of generics at national or regional level.”

“Our study provides health authorities with significant data to enable them to prioritise cost-effective strategies in cancer control”, Bhoo-Pathy said. “Early detection may provide the best avenue to favourably influence economic and disease outcomes in cancer patients from low- and middle-income Southeast Asian countries, followed by increasing accessibility to effective treatments and provision of financial risk protection. The health financing systems in these countries also requires re-examination to ensure that public funds are directed to patients who need them the most.”

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