20 Jan 2022

New research fund to focus on inequity in lung cancer treatment, diagnosis

5:09 pm on 20 January 2022

Stark inequities in treatment and survival rates for Māori and Pacific patients diagnosed with New Zealand's biggest cancer killer are the focus of $6 million in new research funding.

Silhouette of a doctor walking in a hurry in the hospital corridor.

The Lung Foundation New Zealand says 45 percent of patients diagnosed with lung cancer were diagnosed at hospital emergency departments (file image). Photo: 123RF

Lung cancer is a leading cause of death in Aotearoa, killing 1700 people every year, a disproportionate number of whom are Māori.

Patient advocates have welcomed the funding shared by six university and public health teams, but also want better drug funding to help people battling the disease now.

Health Research Council chief executive Sunny Collings said there were entrenched disparities in lung cancer care.

"Māori are four times more likely to die from lung cancer than non-Māori, an unacceptable disparity that has remained unchanged for at least the past 20 years," Prof Collings said.

The research council, Cancer Control Agency, and Ministry of Health are jointly funding the research.

University of Otago associate professor Jason Gurney has received funding for a project designed to achieve equity in lung cancer survival rates for Māori by 2030.

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Associate professor Jason Gurney. Photo: Supplied / University of Otago

"At 300 deaths per year, about the same number of Māori die from lung cancer as [those who] die from the six next most common causes of cancer death combined," he said.

"Our own recent research shows strong survival disparities across all stages of lung cancer, suggesting that access to potentially curative treatment is not equal between Māori and non-Māori regardless of the stage."

While the funding was welcome, Lung Foundation New Zealand chief executive Philip Hope said patients also deserved better access to publicly-funded therapies.

"If we're guided by an equity lens, we would not be putting all of our effort into research right now, we would be putting it into reimbursing treatments that would be life-changing for patients who have been diagnosed right now," he said.

"They no longer find it acceptable to be told to go home and die quietly."

Lung cancer sufferers want Pharmac to reverse a 2020 decision to freeze plans to fund a drug that could help at least 1400 patients a year.

Keytruda is available in New Zealand but patients must fund it themselves at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

Hope said people were dying prematurely, partly because of a "thrift culture" at the drug-buying agency Pharmac.

"In Australia, Māori have access to 17 different drugs that are available to treat lung cancer. In New Zealand, they have access to five. If they want access to any one of those other 12, they'll need to pay for it," he said.

"There are many treatments sitting at Pharmac right now, the evidence is indisputable, they will extend life, they will reduce burden in the health system, but for whatever reason there's not the appetite to seek reimbursement, to seek the budget to fund those medicines."

Hope said 45 percent of patients diagnosed with lung cancer were diagnosed at hospital emergency departments, a figure he attributed to a "wait and see" approach and people in disadvantaged parts of the country not going to the doctor.

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