How new technology is improving cancer care

A female patient in a treatment room undergoes a round of cancer treatment.

Despite delayed screenings during the pandemic, breakthroughs in cancer treatment are a bright spot in health care today, with mortality rates decreasing 1.5% every year for the past two decades.

“Precision medicine means we can tailor treatments to each person’s specific diagnosis so that we can cure more patients — or enable them to live longer with a better quality of life,” explains Dr. Roger Brito, the Divisional Head of Enterprise Oncology at CVS Health.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) shares these goals. “We know, with all these advances, not all demographics have benefited equally,” says ACS CEO Dr. Karen Knudsen. “A Black woman with breast cancer has a 40% increased chance of a poor outcome compared to someone who's white.”

Addressing those disparities is one factor driving the ACS to emphasize cancer research. For example, a pilot project enables participating oncologists to use existing electronic health record (EHR) and patient data management (PDM) systems to match patients to local clinical trials.

CVS Health’s Transform Oncology Care also helps connect program members to local clinical trials. According to the CVS Health Trends Report 2021, the program also makes the latest National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Clinical Practice Guidelines available to participating oncologists nationwide to help them get patients on the most appropriate treatments faster.

“If the oncologist picks a therapeutic regimen that’s based on the person’s clinical and genetic profile, and aligned with NCCN Guidelines, it is automatically approved within minutes or hours, rather than in days, or one drug at a time,” explains Dr. Brito.

Roger Brito
Dr. Roger Brito, Divisional Head of Enterprise Oncology, CVS Health

Could cancer vaccines be just around the corner?

Cancer works by turning off the body’s immune response, allowing it to spread unchecked. Historically, treatments like chemotherapy targeted cancerous tumors. Newer treatments target the specific mutations that cause cancer, and help the immune system identify the cancer and attack it, says Knudsen. That also minimizes the side effects of treatment.

There is also real potential to eradicate particular cancers through vaccination, Dr. Knudsen says, with HPV vaccination showing the way. While it was first developed to prevent cervical cancer, human papilloma viruses also drive about half of head and neck cancers. “That’s the tip of the spear. There may be other cancers that we may be able to prevent through vaccination,” she says.

“Our goal is to elevate health care in every community and for every patient by addressing breakdowns along the entire patient journey,” adds Dr. Brito.