Obtaining designation as a National Cancer Institute is a top priority for Kansas University. Millions of dollars are going toward this goal, which has the potential to save the lives of Kansans.
Lawrence Memorial Hospital leaders like the prospect of having a cancer center nearby that could some day earn the National Cancer Institute gold standard.
If the Kansas University Cancer Center is successful in its quest for NCI designation, it would mean patients won’t have to travel hundreds of miles to receive second opinions at NCI cancer centers. And it could bring greater collaboration between research occurring at KU Medical Center and LMH.
“It will attract more science, it will attract more physicians, it will attract more transitional expertise so that the citizens of Lawrence or patients will benefit from that in the long run,” said Ronald Stephens, LMH’s oncology center medical director.
So far the hospital hasn’t been willing to pay the $500,000 a year it would take to become a top-level member in the Midwest Cancer Alliance, which connects state medical facilities with KU Cancer Center’s clinical trials, education programs and outreach efforts.
“At this moment in time, there really is no advantage to our patients,” Stephens said. “So if our patients don’t see an advantage to the MCA connection, I think it is silly for us to become involved.”
If KU Cancer Center does achieve NCI designation, those benefits would extend to members of the MCA, which includes 11 health care institutions. Hospital heavyweights Via Christi Health System, Stormont-Vail HealthCare, St. Luke’s Health System and Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics are among them.
The KU Cancer Center’s ability to form partnerships and garner support from medical facilities that are potential competitors bodes well for its application, said Linda Weiss, who is head of the NCI Cancer Centers Program. Among the steps potential NCI cancer centers must make to earn designation is reaching out to regional communities.
“For a young cancer center, they have done a lot to pull (medical facilities) together,” Weiss said.
Roy Jensen, director of the KU Cancer Center, said the intent of the network is to make clinical drug trials available throughout Kansas. It’s a model that has already piqued the interest of other states.
“The one thing we have always been very focused on is making sure that the cancer center is just as relevant to people in Leavenworth as it is in Wyandotte County or Liberal, Kan.,” he said.
Working with competitors
While at the heart of NCI designation is the chance to receive more research funding, it also opens cancer centers up to more clinical drug trials and more connections to other NCI institutes. Those advantages often have cancer patients looking for the NCI seal of approval when seeking second opinions or treatment.
The draw of an NCI cancer center can sometimes put nearby competing hospitals and medical facilities on edge, Weiss said.
Some NCI cancer centers have set up agreements with community hospitals so patients will return to their local oncologist once they are done with clinical trials.
“You don’t want to take patients away when it is not appropriate, when the care doesn’t require it,” Weiss said.
While LMH is supportive of the KU Cancer Center’s quest for NCI designation, President and CEO Gene Meyer said the hospital is also “protective” of its oncology program and wants to keep its autonomy.
As of now, LMH has greater access to clinical trials than what the KU Cancer Center alliance would provide, Stephens, the LMH oncologist, said.
NCI designation would open up more Phase 1 clinical trials at KU Cancer Center, which LMH currently doesn’t have. Phase 1 clinical trials are important for improving cancer research, but Stephens said they aren’t always helpful for patients.
“Patients going into those trials need to understand the likelihood of them individually receiving any benefit from that drug is low to almost absent,” he said.
As the cancer center continues to grow, Stephens said it will be important to keep in mind all the services community hospitals can provide in caring for cancer patients. Patients shouldn’t have to make longer trips if they can find the same treatment at home, he said.
“If you don’t know that and if you don’t act on that, you provide a disservice to patients for them to feel forced to travel,” Stephens said.