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ASCO in Action Podcast


Jun 9, 2020

In the latest ASCO in Action Podcast, American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) CEO Dr. Clifford A. Hudis is joined by Dr. Jonathan Marron, incoming Chair of ASCO’s Ethics Committee and a lead author of the new Ethics and Resource Scarcity: ASCO Recommendations for the Oncology Community During the COVID-19 Pandemic. 

In this episode they discuss ASCO’s recommendations, why ASCO developed this guidance, and what patients, families, and the entire medical community need to know about allocating limited resources during the COVID-19 Pandemic.  

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The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.


Welcome to this ASCO in Action podcast, brought to you by the ASCO Podcast Network, a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content that offers enriching insights into the world of cancer care. You can find all of our shows, including this one, at podcast.asco.org. The ASCO in Action podcast is ASCO's podcast series, where we explore the policy and practice issues that impact oncologists, the entire cancer care delivery team, and the individuals we care for, people with cancer.


My name is Dr. Clifford Hudis, and I'm the CEO of ASCO. And I'm proud to serve as the host of the ASCO in Action podcast series. Today, I'm very pleased to be joined by Dr. Jonathan Marron, incoming chair of ASCO's Ethics Committee and a lead author of ASCO's recent recommendations for the oncology community on ethically managing scarce resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Dr. Marron is also a bioethicist at Boston Children's Hospital, a pediatric oncologist at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and he is on the Center for Bioethics teaching faculty at Harvard Medical School. Today, we're going to talk about those recommendations. And I'll note that they were published just recently as a special article just in early April in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. We'll focus specifically on the reasons that ASCO took this step and what it is that oncologists, patients, families, and the entire cancer care community need to know about this issue. Dr. Marron, thank you so much for joining me today.


Thank you so much, Dr. Hudis. It's really a pleasure to be speaking with you, and an honor as well. Before we get started, I do want to just point out that I have no conflicts of interest to disclose.


Well, that's great. Now, just to provide some context as we start this discussion, it's the middle of May as we're recording this. In the United States, the COVID-19 public health crisis bubbled up to awareness a little bit in January, became seemingly near threat in February, and seemed in the public's eye, I think, to breach our shores at the beginning to middle of March. So we're about four months, more or less, into this public health crisis.


The US has had now about a million and a half confirmed cases of the virus. And I think this week, we crossed the 90,000 number in terms of deaths from the virus. From the very early days, there was-- and we all remember this-- an extraordinarily emotional and widespread concern that medical resources, and especially ventilators, but also medications, as well as space, critical and intensive care beds-- those three things, that they would be stretched, that some communities would be especially hard hit, and that, as a consequence, access to those resources might be limited.


And when that arose as a concern, what followed, especially for people who work in this field, and bioethicists in general, as well as everyday clinicians, was the very real possibility that they would be forced to make some painful and difficult choices. And I'll say some of our members wrote about these experiences as well in ASCO Connection and elsewhere. So can you now maybe help our listeners understand why ASCO in particular thought that this situation needed to be addressed and why we decided to provide the very specific guidance that you took part in creating in the form of these recommendations?


Absolutely. So you really highlighted a couple of the main questions and concerns that we had that we wanted to do our best to address, in the sense that at the outset of the pandemic, it was really difficult to tell what direction things were going to go and just how bad everything was going to get. Seeing the experience in China and seeing the experience in Italy, there was significant concern that, as you mentioned, our health care system would not be able to support the critical care needs that we would have. There is a long history of people thinking about how to utilize and best utilize resources like this in the setting of scarcity.


One of the concerns that comes up whenever you have to make these difficult or realistically impossible choices is how you're going to do so. And so really, that's where we came, as oncologists and as the ASCO community, to try to figure out how we could best represent the oncology community and to ensure that cancer unto itself was not going to keep a given patient from having a fair chance to access these potentially lifesaving resources, even in the setting of a public health crisis like this, even in the setting of scarce resources.


So I remember as this was being developed having conversations with, I think, you and other members of the panel. I'm going to push a little bit on at least one of the areas that I think is really a concern but can be misunderstood. And that is this high-level statement you just made that people with-- if I understood correctly-- that people with cancer might find themselves discriminated against in these moments of triage, fundamentally. There's one ventilator. There are three patients at need. And God forbid we're ever in this situation-- how do you decide who gets it.


On the one hand, of course, there's a fairness doctrine. But on the other, there is a medical reality. And cancer is not one thing. So could you just talk a little bit about what we mean when we say protecting the cancer patients? And let me be clear. We're not saying that cancer as a diagnosis, stage, prognosis should be ignored exactly, right?


Absolutely. And I think what you said there really is one of the most, if not the most, important aspects here, that there are a couple of different ways that you can go about trying to take, as the example that you had of the three patients, and decide which of those three will get the ventilator. If not the perhaps fairest way would be simply to make a choice at random and say each of those three individuals has an equal chance at it, and we'll flip a coin or do some other random way of deciding who will get it. That's certainly fair.


But some people would say, you know what? They may not be equal in all ways. And if we're trying to maximize our resources and maximize the potential outcome benefits of these scarce resources, we want to do something more than just do something-- choose randomly. And we've actually learned in the past from work with community groups that people don't love the idea of randomly choosing things like this, in a public health emergency or otherwise.


And so then-- the question, then, is OK, so how are you going to make that choice. If we're trying to maximize health care outcomes, and which you usually think about that being survival, we want to use medical information. But then the question is, what is the information that should be used.


So one of the concerns is that there could be certain disease processes, cancer or otherwise, that would be seen as exclusion criteria. That's to say, OK, we have these three patients. We have one ventilator. Patient one has cancer, so therefore we're going to not even give them a chance at that ventilator. And that's really where this comes in. That's not the way to do this. Cancer absolutely should come into the consideration. But that patient's specific cancer-- their diagnosis, their prognosis, the medical information-- the best medical information that we have, the best evidence-based medical information that we have about their specific disease so that we can make an informed decision, or at least a maximally informed decision about who is the most likely to survive if they are given access to the ventilator or ICU bed or whatever it might be.


Yeah, I think this was one of the areas that you had to read somewhat carefully and be patient to understand the context, because if I understand correctly-- and with no disrespect to our colleagues outside of oncology-- one concern is that in the ER, a patient who once had cancer might just be, in a blanket way, discriminated against. But look, I was a breast cancer doc for 30 years. Most of my patients were, frankly, . cured. And the fact that they had breast cancer in 1996 is of essentially no meaningful relevance to any medical decision, almost. I'm oversimplifying it here, rather.


But our concern, I think, was that in the front lines, under duress and pressure, that mistaken judgments might be made, and we wanted to advocate for that. Is that-- I may not have said that so elegantly. But is that-- that was one of the concerns in the other direction, right?


Absolutely, yeah. And it's certainly conceivable that somebody, in a very well-intentioned way, would think that OK, this patient currently has cancer or at some point in the past had cancer. And as wonderful as the electronic record is, sometimes it can be difficult to tell if something is a current medical problem or a past one. But either way, simply the diagnosis of cancer is not the be-all, end-all. And there needs to be a thoughtful and ethically rigorous process by which these decisions are made. And that's what we hoped to inform with the paper and with the recommendations.


You know, it's interesting. And if I may just think of the sweep of time, I always put things in the ASCO context. So the society was founded in '64. The medical oncology boards were in the mid-70s for the first time. The curative systemic therapies for testes cancer, for the lymphomas were a little before that, obviously, and in that general era. It is quite a testimony, when you think about it, to the advances in oncology that we're now worried that people will, in a sense, make too much in the negative direction about prognosis of a cancer diagnosis.


And I'm thinking of the last few years, where suddenly there are tranches of survivors of melanoma and non-small-cell lung cancer and other diseases that historically had a very poor prognosis, and now they may still have, on average, a bad prognosis. But there are survivors and long-term survivors with formerly incurable diseases. They need to be protected, in a sense, from this one-size-fits-all judgment, right?


Absolutely, yeah. And as a pediatric oncologist, I run into that every day that people assume that, oh, my gosh, children who are diagnosed with cancer, that they're dying left and right. And people are generally quite surprised to hear that we have an 85% survival rate in children with cancer. So that certainly would be a concern in that population as well, that if there were the setting of resource scarcity that a child could come in and say, OK, well, they have cancer, even if it's active cancer, but they, in many cases, would be expected to have a very good chance of survival.
It's interesting you bring that up, because I will say in a distantly related aside, certainly one of the more interesting and repetitively surprising conversations many of us have is the one that involves pediatric oncology with friends and neighbors or whatever who aren't that familiar. They're always surprised at the high success rate in that field. And it just makes the point that we can't let a diagnosis stand as the only interpretable fact. So look, these recommendations establish an important principle. A cancer diagnosis alone should not keep a patient from a fair chance to access potentially life-threatening-- or rather life-saving, sorry, resources, even during a public health crisis.


But let's go a step further. One of the other recommendations in there were that decisions regarding allocation of scarce resources should be separated-- separated from bedside decision-making. This one, I struggled with as a reader as well. And I wonder if you could explain to our listeners what the intent or thinking behind this recommendation would be. As I ask that question, in my mind's eye, I picture I'm called to the ER. The ER doc is looking at my patient's dropping O2 sat and is turning to me for advice and guidance and understanding of the disease specificity or the specific disease circumstances in this patient so they can make the triage decision. And I'm struggling to understand what we actually mean by decisions regarding allocation of scarce resources should be separated from the bedside.


So ultimately, that piece comes down to the fact that we as humans and decision-makers are imperfect. And it would be unreasonable and probably impossible to expect that any one of us, as a clinician or just as a person, could reasonably weigh all of these different things simultaneously, because there is ultimately a huge conflict of interest in saying that I am the clinician taking care of this patient in front of me, but simultaneously, my job is to steward the resources for my institution or, even more broadly, the resources for the entirety of the country or whatever I might consider to be my patient population. And so what we are trying to-- the message we were trying to send with that piece is not only that it shouldn't be the oncologist who's making that resource allocation decision, but it's actually not the emergency room clinician who should be either, because it's just completely unreasonable to expect someone at the bedside to be weighing those two things at the same time and to be making an unbiased decision.


Well, apart from the pandemic and the specific kinds of acute resource shortages that the paper addresses, the truth of the matter is, we've been talking about finite healthcare resources and hard choices for years. And these questions often are raised in the context of oncology. So I want in that way to just ask you about something that you mentioned at the very beginning, but I'm going to push you to a more precise answer, the recommendation that says allocation of scarce resources in a pandemic should be based on maximizing health benefits. And you alluded to that a little bit.


So can you just expand a little bit on what it is you mean? You've said overall survival is often taken as one. But of course, there are trade-offs. There's quality-of-life issues. There are a number of people who might benefit modestly, more people, fewer people, benefiting more deeply, whatever it is. So I won't hold you to this exactly, although it's being recorded. But what do you think should be the goal when we talk about maximizing health benefits? What exactly does that mean?


So this is really where we get into the weeds with this, as you were sort of alluding to. So certainly, we want to save the most lives. I think there is general agreement from most people out there that that's a reasonable and a fair way to look at this. One of the questions that's been debated most over these past couple of months as we've been thinking about these things, perhaps more than we ever have before, is whether we want to somehow integrate the idea of saving the most life years.
So what do I mean there? So the idea that a person who is expected to live five years, do we think about that life differently than a person who's expected to live another 45 years? Intuitively, I think many people would say, oh, well, if we have to make that choice, that awful, impossible, choice, we should save the person who is going to live 45 years over the one who's going to live five years.


That's getting at this question of saving the most life years, number of total years of life. And so with that, I'll ask you, is there anything else you think ASCO members or the cancer care community or health care institutions should understand about this work in this moment? Is there anything their families and patients you would want to-- is there anything else you'd want them to know about this that we haven't touched on?
I mean, I think one really important but really challenging piece about all this is the role of communication, in every sense of the word, that these are absolutely unprecedented times. And these types of decisions, if and when they have to be made, are luckily things that-- the kind of decisions that we don't typically ever have to make. And so if they have to be made, ensuring that oncologists who have the long-standing relationship with patients and families take on a role of communicating with patients and with their families as much as they can to explain why these decisions are being made, and why they have to be made, to ensure that everybody is on the same page I think is really important. What makes this even more difficult is the fact that most hospitals now have visitor policies such that families and caregivers often, if not most times, are not able to be at the bedside of patients, which makes this only that much harder, but makes communication that much more important.
I would want to highlight something you just said, because it resonates, at least for me, and I think for many in our in our community. And that is communication. At root, of all of this is dependent and made easier and smoother by high-quality communications.


And I would actually extend what you said by pointing out that it also includes discussions about intentions and desires on the part of patients. And this is something we who take care of cancer patients, I think, do try to spend a lot of time on. This discussion is much easier if a patient who does know about a life-limiting prognosis is clear about what they want. Certainly for the whole team, some of the ethical dilemmas might be minimized that way, right?


Yeah, I couldn't say that better. That's one thing we try to highlight in the guidelines as well, that we consider advance-care planning and having goals-of-care discussions to be really at the core of clinical oncology practice. And that continues in the setting of this pandemic. And if anything, it's only more important.


Well, I think this is really great. I hope that listeners find this discussion intriguing and go and take a more in-depth look at the actual publication. I want to point out that the recommendations that we've been discussing are just one part of ASCO's longstanding commitment to provide information, guidance, and resources that will support clinicians, the cancer care delivery team, and patients with cancer throughout their journeys, and also during this COVID-19 pandemic. That is, what we're doing here is not unique to this pandemic moment, even if the acuity of the need is heightened.


There are some other resources that you should be aware of, including patient care guidance for oncologists who treat patients with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are guidances available for practices on how to adjust our policies in response to the virus and, just recently, on how to begin to return to more normal styles of work. There are also updates on federal activities that have been aimed at responding to this crisis. And everybody knows that this has been a very fast-paced time of change.
We recently launched the ASCO survey on COVID-19 in Oncology Registry or ASCO Registry. And our goal is to collect data and share insights on how the virus has impacted cancer care, but also cancer patient outcomes throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. And we encourage all oncology practices to participate so that we can gain the largest data set possible, and therefore represent the diverse population of patients and practices around the United States.


I want to remind listeners, you can find all of these resources and a whole lot more at ASCO.org. There is also patient-focused information available at Cancer.net. And with that, until next time, I want to thank everyone for listening to this ASCO in Action podcast. I want to remind you that if you enjoyed what you heard today, you should take the time to give us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you might listen. And while you're there, be sure to subscribe so that you never, ever miss an episode. I want to thank Dr. Marron for joining us today.
Thank you, Dr. Hudis. It was an absolute pleasure to join you.
And lastly, I want to remind you that the ASCO in Action podcast is just one of ASCO's many podcasts. You can find all of the shows at Podcast.ASCO.org.