Universal Needs: The Role of Universal Health Coverage in Reducing Cancer Deaths and Disparities

By Graham Colditz, MD, DrPH

In the British journal, The Lancet, this week Dr. Karen Emmons and I comment on an analysis of health insurance, cancer mortality and the impact of the great recession 1. This note expands slightly on our comment and adds focus on the Vice-President’s Moonshot options to improve access to cancer treatment and outcomes for cancer patients. We note that with over 14 million new cases diagnosed worldwide and over 8 million cancer deaths in 2012 2, there has been renewed focus on the accumulating global burden of cancer. A growing emphasis is now on how to increase the availability of evidence-based prevention and treatment strategies 3. In the US there has also been interest in the role of government-funded health insurance, and the rapidly increasing cost of cancer care. Globally, as of 2009 only 75 of 194 countries had legislation that provided am mandate for Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and only 58 were attaining UHC 4. In the Lancet this week, Majhiben Maruthappu et al draw on data regarding the global economic downturn to evaluate the relation between public sector expenditures on health care, change in unemployment, and cancer mortality 5. Changes in economic status, investment in cancer care and outcomes are complex and difficult to study, but critical if we are to understand the impact of different policy approaches on cancer morbidity and mortality at a population level.

Using the natural experiment created by the global economic downturn, the authors show strong relationships between unemployment and increased mortality from treatable cancers. To evaluate change in unemployment (or in public expenditure on health) in relation to change in cancer mortality, they use multivariable regression analysis assessing change within each country. They draw on detailed cancer mortality data for more than 70 countries from the World Bank and the World Health Organization mortality data from 1990 to 2010. They chose mortality from 6 cancers (prostate, female breast, male and female colorectal cancer and male and female lung cancer) as the primary outcome for assessment of the relation to unemployment changes, and assessed time lags from the recession to account for treatment impact (or lack of treatment) to emerge in the mortality data. They also evaluated changes in relation to an aggregate measure of treatable cancers (breast, prostate, colorectal) and untreatable cancers with 5-year survival less than 10% (lung and pancreas). This focus on cancer mortality avoids the long delays between many prevention or lifestyle changes and cancer incidence 6 more directly addressing the timing of, and access to, treatment and cancer outcomes. A 1% increase in unemployment was associated with a significant increase in the age-standardized mortality from treatable cancer, but no significant relation was observed for untreatable cancers. Grouping countries by health development index did not show important differences. Supplementary Figure S2 plots the unemployment and the trend in cancer mortality demonstrating this significant relationship. The authors conclude that the primary means by which increased unemployment likely has an adverse impact upon cancer mortality is through reduced access to effective care, which universal healthcare coverage can directly address. Further they show that increases in public health expenditure as a percentage of GDP was significantly associated with mortality reductions using these same cancer endpoints and that the results persisted for up to 5 years after increases in public health expenditures.

Studies of unemployment have previously shown relationships with cancer mortality, for example following the Great Depression 7. These new data bring the evidence to contemporary health care delivery and health systems. Furthermore, studies within the US show that cancer patients are more than twice as likely as their same aged peers to file for bankruptcy 8. This risk is particularly higher among those under age 65, who do not yet have access to the only universal health care mechanism in the US (Medicare) and social security (income) protection 8. Socioeconomic gradients have been reported for survival after colorectal cancer in Australia 9 and Sweden 10. Hence, even these broad social programs are not sufficient to buffer the impact of the cost of care. Higher expenditures on cancer care per case is related to lower excess cancer mortality 11. Here the added protection of universal health systems against the adverse effect of recession-induced unemployment adds further weight to the arguments for standards of care being available to all cancer patients, regardless of their personal economic or insurance resources.

These data make a strong case for universal healthcare coverage and its protective effect on cancer mortality, especially during economic downturns. Disparities in cancer outcomes between countries are likely a function of such policies on coverage and allocation of health resources 3,12. Many countries provide such coverage, but many do not, or do so in ways that issues of affordability have not been addressed. Importantly, the current study does not include data from China or India, which together have almost 37% of the world’s population 13. These two countries, each with relatively low percentage of GDP spent on health and limited access to cancer care,14 will no doubt see a dramatic rise in cancer burden in the coming years due to the population age structure and economic development, and the impact will likely be felt worldwide.

There are also persistent disparities in cancer outcomes within countries, and attention is also needed to models of care and coverage. Data examining the impact of cancer treatability on racial/ethnic disparities underscores the importance of policy-focused approaches to close the access gap. Tehranifar, et al., found that there are few disparities in survival rates for cancers that are largely untreatable 15. However, social disparities emerge in situations where the knowledge, technology, and effective medical interventions for controlling a disease exist, allowing individuals with greater access to important social and economic resources (e.g. knowledge, income, and beneficial social relations) to delay and avoid death from that disease 15. Within the United States, integrated healthcare systems demonstrate the ability to eliminate disparities between race / ethnic groups in cancer mortality that have persisted in the general population 16. As the authors note, against a background of rising health care costs, spending restrictions must be accompanied by improvements in efficiency, or it is likely that poorer quality of care will lead to higher mortality levels. Integrated health systems, which provide multi-disciplinary care pathways and focus on quality improvement, are one means of addressing quality and efficiency concerns 17.

In the US, Vice-President Biden has called for renewed efforts to address the burden and growing impact of cancer in the US and worldwide. The new data here add to the evidence that implementing universal healthcare coverage would further reduce the toll of cancer by making it possible to implement evidence-based treatments and prevention strategies that are already in hand. Universal coverage is a key United Nations Development Program Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 3), which has been described as the single most powerful concept that public health has to offer 18.

Although in many countries universal health care coverage overall is seen as an important societal investment, this has not to date been the case in the US. However, it may be very difficult to achieve the promise of improving treatments for cancer without providing coverage to those impacted by cancer. Universal coverage specifically for all cancer patients would meet the IOM recommendation to reduce disparities in access to cancer care for vulnerable and underserved populations 19. Further, universal cancer coverage would likely generate a far faster return on investment than through discovery and development of new therapies that are decades away from being implemented.


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18. United Nations. Gaol 3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages. 2015. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg3 (accessed March 20 2016).

19. IOM (Institute of Medicine). Delivering high-quality cancer care: Charting a new course for a system in crisis. Washington, DC, 2013.

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