Alarms ring over cancer treatment

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State health regulators have conducted a risk analysis of cancer treatment in Norway, and concluded that major improvements are needed. Meanwhile, the state’s health director himself has warned that some patients may be denied treatment, while the Health Minister worries a current debate over who wins priority can create “unnecessary fear.”

Health Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen worries that too much debate over how cancer patients are prioritized can lead to "unnecessary fear." PHOTO: Regjeringen.no

Norway’s public health care system has been under pressure for years, as costs balloon and the population ages. Newspaper Aftenposten is running a series of stories on how health care officials decide who gets treatment and who doesn’t.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), meanwhile, reported late last week that the state board regulating health care in Norway (Statens Helsetilsyn) recently concluded that cancer treatment in Norway already contains a degree of risk that’s “too high,” and that the potential for improvement is “considerable.”

When DN asked Helsetilsynet’s boss, Lars E Hanssen, whether he was sounding the alarm over the state of Norwegian cancer treatment, Hanssen replied: “Absolutely.”

His board’s recent risk analysis found that delays in diagnosing cancer presented the biggest risk, and in some cases can have “fatal consequences.” Hanssen is also worried that patients, after finally receiving their diagnosis, then get put on waiting lists for cancer treatment. Poor exchange of information and a lack of coordination among health care providers involved can further raise the risk to patients.

Hanssen wants Norwegian hospitals to reveal statistics surrounding their own procedures, so that the public can learn how long patients must wait, on average, for a diagnosis and for treatment, and also what the results are. “We need more openness around this,” he told DN.

The health ministry claims it’s taking the regulators’ conclusions seriously and Health Director Bjørn-Inge Larsen told DN that waiting periods for diagnosis and treatment will be made public. Cancer treatment, though, will likely still have urgent, but not emergency status.

He contends that most cancer treatments should be started within days of diagnosis, and the lack of publicly available information on waiting periods reflects that waiting periods aren’t significant. Larsen, however, has told Aftenposten some treatments may be denied because they’re too expensive. He admitted it’s difficult to talk about, but he believes Norway spends too much on extending the lives of some terminally ill or elderly patients.

Health Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen from the Labour Party, already under criticism for refusing to halt the closure or reclassification of some local hospitals around the country, wasn’t entirely happy to hear that.

“This debate should be limited,” Strøm-Erichsen told Aftenposten. “I’m not saying I don’t want debate, but my biggest fear is that it will only create uncertainty and unnecessary fear or worries.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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