'Very red flag' over cancer center's rosy survival claims

” ‘Very red flag’ over cancer center’s rosy survival claims.” By Sharon Begley and Robin Respaut, NBC News (via Reuters)

When the local doctor who had been treating Vicky Hilborn told her that her rare cancer had spread throughout her body, including her brain, she and her husband refused to accept a death sentence. Within days, Keith Hilborn was on the phone with an “oncology information specialist” at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Hilborn had seen CTCA’s website touting survival rates better than national averages. His call secured Vicky an appointment at the for-profit, privately held company’s Philadelphia affiliate, Eastern Regional Medical Center. There, the oncologist who examined Vicky told the couple he had treated other cases of histiocytic sarcoma, the cancer of immune-system cells that she had. “He said, ‘We’ll have you back on your feet in no time,'” Keith recalled.

Vicky’s cancer treatment was forestalled by an infection and other complications that kept her at Eastern Regional for three weeks. In July 2009, when she got back home, things changed. Despite Keith’s calls, he said, CTCA did not schedule another appointment. As his wife got sicker, Keith, a former deputy sheriff in western Pennsylvania, was reduced to begging. The oncology information specialist “said don’t bring her here,” he recalled. “I said you don’t understand; we’re going to lose her if you don’t treat her. She told me I’d just have to accept that.” Vicky Hilborn never got another appointment with CTCA. She died on September 6, 2009, at age 48.

CTCA is not unique in turning away patients. A lot of doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers in the United States decline to treat people who can’t pay, or have inadequate insurance, among other reasons. What sets CTCA apart is that rejecting certain patients and, even more, culling some of its patients from its survival data lets the company tout in ads and post on its website patient outcomes that look dramatically better than they would if the company treated all comers. These are the rosy survival numbers that attract people like the Hilborns.

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