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Site of Care May Affect Racial and Ethnic Minorities’ Access to Palliative Treatment

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Key Points

  • 22.5% of white patients (n = 106,603) received palliative care, while only 20.0% of black patients (n = 16,435) and 15.9% of Hispanic patients (n = 3,551) received palliative care.
  • After adjusting for other variables, the team found that patients who received care at a minority-serving hospital had two-thirds the odds of receiving palliative care compared with those who received care at a nonminority-serving hospital, regardless of the patient’s race or ethnicity.

For patients at the end of life, palliative care can prolong survival and improve the quality of life for patients with a life-threatening illness and for their families—but studies have found that racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to receive end-of-life palliative care than nonminorities. A new study conducted by investigators at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has revealed that site of care may be a key contributing factor to this difference among patients with advanced cancer. Their findings were published by Cole et al in JAMA Network Open.

“There is a growing role for palliative care, and most physicians accept that many patients in the late stages of cancer should be referred to palliative care,” said corresponding author Quoc-Dien Trinh, MD, a physician in the Division of Urological Surgery and the Center for Surgery and Public Health (CSPH) at Brigham.

“We knew that black and Hispanic patients [with cancer] receive palliative care at lower rates than white patients, but until now, we didn’t know why. Was it just that doctors were not offering these services to their black and Hispanic patients? Or is there some other factor at play?” said first author Alexander P. Cole, MD, also of the Division of Urological Surgery and CSPH.

Methods and Findings

The team conducted a retrospective, registry-based analysis of adults diagnosed with four types of metastatic cancer using data from the Participant Use Files of the National Cancer Database (NCDB). The team focused on men and women 40 years and older with metastatic prostate, non–small cell lung, colon, and breast cancer. The main outcome measured was receipt of palliative care such as pain control, surgical treatment, radiation therapy, and systemic chemotherapy administered to alleviate symptoms but not to cure disease.

Investigators looked at the hospitals at which patients received care, calculating the proportion of minority patients (black or Hispanic) treated at each. Hospitals with the greatest proportion of minorities were considered “minority-serving hospitals” (MSH). Hospitals that were not in the top 10% were considered “nonminority-serving hospitals” (non-MSH).

The team found that of the more than 600,000 individuals with metastatic cancer studied, 21.7% received palliative care. Overall, 22.5% of white patients (n = 106,603) received palliative care, while only 20.0% of black patients (n = 16,435) and 15.9% of Hispanic patients (n = 3,551) received palliative care. After adjusting for other variables, the team found that patients who received care at an MSH had two-thirds the odds of receiving palliative care compared with those who received care at a non-MSH, regardless of the patient’s race or ethnicity.

“We find that the site of care seems to be a key determinant of whether or not someone receives palliative care,” said Dr. Trinh. 

“Our mission is to reduce inequity in health care, and the first step in doing so is to raise awareness of these disparities,” continued Dr. Trinh. “These findings suggest that there are significant racial and ethnic disparities in receipt of palliative care for patients with metastatic cancer and that these disparities are largely accounted for by the site of a patient’s care. Strategies that focus on improving palliative care use at minority-serving hospitals may be an effective strategy to increase the receipt of palliative care for minorities.”

Disclosure: Funding for this work was provided by the Brigham Research Institute Fund to Sustain Research Excellence. The study authors' full disclosures can be found at jamanetwork.com.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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