Reasons for underuse of recommended therapies for colorectal and lung cancer in the Veterans Health Administration


  • The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and not the Department of Veterans Affairs.



Many studies have documented low rates of effective cancer therapies, particularly in older or minority populations. However, little is known about why effective therapies are underused in these populations.


The authors examined medical records of 584 patients with cancer diagnosed or treated in Department of Veterans Affairs facilities to assess reasons for lack of 1) surgery for stage I/II nonsmall cell lung cancer, 2) surgery for stage I/II/III rectal cancer, 3) adjuvant radiation therapy for stage II/III rectal cancer, and 4) adjuvant chemotherapy for stage III colon cancer. They also assessed differences in reasons for underuse by patient age and race.


Across the 4 guideline-recommended treatments, 92% to 99% of eligible patients were referred to the appropriate cancer specialist; however, therapy was recommended in only 74% to 92% of eligible cases. Poor health was cited in the medical record as the reason for lack of therapy in 15% to 61% of underuse cases; patient refusal explained 26% to 58% of underuse cases. African American patients were more likely to refuse surgery. Older patients were more likely to refuse treatments.


Recommendation against therapy was a primary factor in underuse of effective therapies in older and sicker patients. Patients' refusal of therapy contributed to age and racial disparities in care. Improved data on the effectiveness of cancer therapies in community populations and interventions aimed at improved communication of known risks and benefits of therapy to cancer patients could be effective tools to reduce underuse and lingering disparities in care. Cancer 2011. © 2011 American Cancer Society.