"Death Star" of Medical Technology: Proton-Beam Therapy Shows "All the Problems" in US Healthcare

By Sarah Zhang | March 27, 2012 12:20 pm

spacing is important

Proton-beam therapy is massively expensive—$100+ million facilities, each treatment twice as much as radiation—and not proven to be any safer or more effective than other cancer treatments. So why are U.S. hospitals racing to build new proton-beam facilities?

Financial incentives, and the wrong ones, according to a skeptical piece at Bloomberg. To house the 200-ton cyclotron that accelerates protons to 93,000 miles per second, the facilities have to be as big as football fields, with 16-feet-thick concrete walls. Hospitals can afford to build them because proton-beam therapy is “extremely favorably reimbursed” by Medicare and many private insurance companies, says Sean Tunis, CEO of the Center for Medical Technology Policy. To foot the construction bill, hospitals will have to push the treatment aggressively to cancer patients.

Proton-beam therapy has been around since the 1990s, but its oft-touted safety over radiation has not been conclusively proven. In theory, proton beams are more precise than the X-rays of radiation, so proton-beam therapy has become the favored option for body parts where stray beams can be especially harmful: brain, eyes, spine, prostate. A recent University of North Caroline study on patients with prostate cancer did not find proton-beam therapy to have fewer side effects than radiation, which may be because protons still scatter when they hit tissue. The American Society of Radiation Oncology’s recent review using data from thousands of patients finds no evidence proton-beam therapy is superior either.

The cost and uncertain benefits of proton-beam therapy led Harvard health economist Amitabh Chandra to call it “the death star of American medical technology.” He says to Bloomberg, “nothing so big and complicated has ever been confronted by the system. It’s a metaphor for all the problems we have in American medicine.”

[via Bloomberg]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Technology
  • kirk

    You plebes in District 12 just don’t understand Capital City.

  • Al

    The quoted figures for the size, cost and thickness of shielding in the article are grossly outdated. New, compact proton therapy systems, using synchrotrons, are smaller, much less expensive to purchase and operate, and require much less shielding.

  • Georg

    The core problem is, that there is no “aiming”
    technology precise enough to make use of
    the quality of protons.
    Georg

  • John Lerch

    If you’re referring to DC, you ignored the line (…and many private insurance companies…”). (DELIBERATELY ignored IMO to push your tea party agenda.)

  • Drew

    Take that!

  • http://pazuzu.yolasite.com/ Matt

    Coincidentally and wholly unrelated, I put together a batch of free Death Star desktop wallpapers – everyone can download them from Deviantart – http://sawyerarts.deviantart.com/

  • Jim

    Me, I don’t wanna be hit by a beam of protons…. or anything else, actually.

  • Magoonski

    @ John Lerch …kirk is making a “Hunger Games” reference.

  • CancerSurvivor

    I am a survivor of facial cancer and received both proton and photon radiation. Putting out a piece like this with such little medical research behind it is incredibly irresponsible. Proton beam saved my eye sight due to its precision. Additionally, photon radiation hits the targeted tissue and continues through, damaging other health tissue. Proton hits the targeted tissue and stops. Therefore, no healthy tissue behind the target is damaged. Also, they don’t use proton for prostate cancer. It is reserved for children and adults with head and neck cancers that are in risky areas. Don’t spread lies that damage the reputation of treatments that save people’s lives.

  • Mick

    Hunger Games references but no Monty Python? I would have thought at least one person would have referenced the “Machine that Goes Ping”!

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