A recent study by the University of California, Irvine found most women with ovarian cancer receive inadequate care and miss out on treatments that could add a year or more to their lives. In the U.S., 15,000 women die each year from ovarian cancer. There are 22,000 new cases diagnosed yearly, most of them discovered at an advanced stage and needing aggressive treatment. Worldwide, there are close to a quarter million new cases diagnosed each year.
Typically, the reason for the poor care women receive in treatment is that most hospitals and doctors lack expertise in the complex surgery and chemotherapy that can fight the disease and prolong life. The study found that a little more than one third of patients receive best care possible, a troubling statistic that has been confirmed in other similar studies.
Cancer specialists agree that successful treatment depends on meticulous, extensive surgery and aggressive chemotherapy. Ovarian cancer spreads inside the abdomen, and survival improves with surgery that removes all visible traces of the disease. Taking out as much cancer as possible gives the drugs a better chance of killing whatever is left. The surgery may involve removing the spleen, parts of the intestine, stomach and other organs, as well as the reproductive system.
This surgery should only be performed by a gynecologic oncologist, but too often it’s done by general surgeons and gynecologists. Dr. Robert E. Bristow, lead researcher of the study, said that surgeons who lack expertise in ovarian cancer should refer women to specialists if the women are suspected to have the disease. But many don’t. Almost 80 percent of the women in the study were treated by what the researchers called “low-volume” providers — surgeons with 10 or fewer cases a year, and hospitals with 20 or fewer.
“If we could just make sure that women get to the people who are trained to take care of them, the impact would be much greater than that of any new chemotherapy drug or biological agent,” said Dr. Bristow, during a presentation of the study at a meeting of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology in Los Angeles.
A physician’s failure to diagnosis or treat a patient properly can have tragic consequences. Patients and their families do have legal options to hold doctor’s responsible, such as this patient whose medical misdiagnosis led to a $650,000 settlement.