Detroit should serve as model for expanding advanced cancer care

Imagine for a moment the unimaginable: doctors have just diagnosed you—or perhaps a loved one—with a serious, life-threatening disease.

Then imagine that there’s a potentially life-saving, targeted treatment for that exact condition, but your medical team may not know about it or have access to the resources to identify the best possible solution.

This is the unfortunate reality for many cancer patients. In fact, most never even find out that a targeted treatment is available.

This is one of the most urgent challenges the healthcare community faces. We must expand patients’ access to these treatments, and make this practice, known as precision medicine, a routine part of clinical cancer care.

Advances in precision medicine are changing the way cancer is diagnosed and treated. The most effective cancer therapies are targeted to individual patients, based on their unique molecular and clinical profiles. These treatments offer better outcomes for many cancer patients who may not respond to traditional treatment options.

However, not all health systems possess the ability to implement this often-costly practice for large populations of cancer patients. Precision medicine requires individualized genetic screening and assessment for targeted treatments and clinical trials, which can be difficult to implement on a large scale. That prevents many people from obtaining the full potential benefit of modern medical breakthroughs.

At Henry Ford Health System, we implemented a precision medicine program on a broad scale to ensure the delivery of precision cancer care to patients in Detroit and across the Midwest. In Detroit, the population at risk for cancer is significantly higher than the national average, which has forced us to rethink how we can deliver better treatments in a cost-effective way.

With the right technology, it’s possible.

Just as Henry Ford himself, perhaps one of the greatest innovators in the modern era, changed how cars were manufactured and made available for large populations more than a century ago, we now want Detroit to be known again for innovation — this time for revolutionizing how cancer care is delivered.

To provide cost-effective access to targeted treatments, health systems need to implement precision medicine efficiently on a large scale. And to do that, health systems must make it easier for oncologists to deliver personalized treatments to patients.

A few issues stand in the way. Genetic test results are complex, each lab delivers results in a different format, and the results aren’t integrated with medical records. Few physicians have the time or specific training required to sort through PDF documents, interpret these results, and use them to inform treatment decisions.

Oncologists need to be able to conveniently access the full scope of patient data, quickly identify treatment or trial options for patients, and seek expert input from a Molecular Tumor Board, or a team of molecular genetic experts who inform providers’ standard treatments.

Technology today automates that entire process and removes these barriers. We partnered with the technology company Syapse to enable our physicians to have all of their patients’ clinical, molecular, treatment, and outcomes data integrated into the clinical electronic medical record system they already use. The technology provides that information to our oncologists at the point of care, in a standard format they can understand. This allows our oncologists to focus on delivering clinical care, rather than time-consuming administrative tasks.

At our first molecular tumor board earlier this year, we analyzed a rare genetic mutation in a patient with recurrent brain cancer who had failed second-line therapy. As a result of the discovery of this unique, clinically relevant and validated mutation, the molecular tumor board enrolled this patient in a clinical trial for a drug designed for an entirely different purpose — but which shared the same target mutation — as an attempt to try every last option to preserve life. Several months later, this patient has so far beaten all odds and is responding to this genetically-driven targeted treatment, all because we had access to the crowd-sourced, real-time bioinformatics analysis for this particular mutation.

These patient experiences have shown me firsthand why health systems need access to larger datasets—so they can base their treatment decisions on real-world evidence. Gathering evidence sets this large requires health systems to share data—something that, fortunately, more health systems are starting to do. Last year, we made a commitment to do so as part of former Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative.

Precision medicine embodies the great promise of what can be achieved through scientific innovation in our time, and it’s already improving the lives of cancer patients in Detroit and across the country. Now health systems must focus on expanding access to these treatments, so that all patients, and not just some, can benefit.

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