The high cost of cancer drugs depends on where you live

Why Are Cancer Drug Costs So High?

Access to cancer drugs can mean the difference between life and death, but a patient's ability to afford the medication may depend largely on where he or she lives. As the $100 billion global market for cancer drugs soars, a new study published in The Lancet Oncology medical journal shows that the price of pharmaceuticals is not only wildly inconsistent around the globe, but within different countries costs can vary between 28 percent and 388 percent.

The trio of researchers who analyzed the list prices per unit of 31 cancer drugs in 16 European countries, Australia, and New Zealand, found that overall, medicine prices were lowest in Greece, Portugal, Spain, and the U.K. Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden suffered the highest drug prices.

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Of the drugs surveyed in 18 countries, none was priced lower than about $11 per unit. Seven of the 31 drugs had an average unit price higher than $1,000—one of which exceeded $5,000. The most egregious price discrepancy was found for the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine, which is marketed as Gemzar and used to treat breast cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, and cancer of the pancreas. The price of the drug, for instance, is 388 percent higher in New Zealand than it is in Australia.

Medical researchers Sabine Vogler, Agnes Vitry, and Zaheer Ud-Din Babar believe their study is the first to measure the prices of new cancer drugs in high-income countries. While they noted that the study was based on offical list prices—information about discounts and reimbursements was limited—the researchers said the study showed that patients risk overpaying for medications. They hoped policymakers will use the research to advocate for better pricing transparency by the pharmaceutical industry.

While many patients face hurdles accessing cancer treatment in high-income countries across Europe, the challenges of obtaining medication are even tougher in less economically advantaged areas in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America—regions responsible for the the majority of cancer deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Cancer is one of the leading causes of mortality across the globe, accounting for about 8.2 million deaths in 2012. The World Health Organization estimates that the number of new cases will rise about 70 percent over the next 20 years.

As the number of cancer cases increase, so too do the costs of related drugs. Worldwide spending on oncology-related medicine reached $100 billion in 2014—marking an increase of more than 10 percent from the previous year and a $25 billion bump from 2009, according to a recent report from the healthcare research organization IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics.

The study also found that the availability of cancer drugs fluctuated widely. In 2014, patients living in Japan, Spain, and South Korea had access to fewer than half of all new cancer drugs that hit the market in the last five years. And in the United States, out-of-pocket costs for patients receiving intravenous cancer drugs skyrocketed 71 percent between 2012 and 2013 alone.

A petition calling for the government to better regulate the pricing of cancer drugs has garnered 35,000 signatures since it was launched earlier this year. But the issue of unaffordable drugs drew perhaps the most outrage in August, when Turing Pharmaceuticals bumped the price of malaria treatment drug Daraprim by 5,000 percent. Chief executive Martin Shkreli drew backlash again on Friday when he said at the Forbes Healthcare Summit in New York that he only regretted not raising the price even higher to make a larger profit.

More on the journey towards an affordable cancer treatment:

How Can Cancer Drugs Be Made Affordable?

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