Use of a high-tech radiation cancer treatment called proton beam therapy (PBT) has increased overall in the United States, but Black patients are getting it less often than white patients, two new studies show.
What is proton beam therapy?
Traditional radiation treatment is photon-based, but PBT uses protons to deliver high-energy beams more precisely to tumors and reduce damage to surrounding healthy tissue.
PBT can be better than traditional radiation therapy for tumors with complex anatomy, tumors surrounded by sensitive tissues and childhood cancers, but PBT can be twice as expensive, according to the American Cancer Society.
To treat a patient, doctors and physicists work together to focus the proton beam on the exact size and shape of the tumor, according to John Hopkins Medicine.
To assess the use of PBT in the United States, researchers analyzed data on nearly 6 million patients in the National Cancer Database. They found that the overall use of PBT for newly diagnosed cancers rose from 0.4% in 2004 to 1.2% in 2018.
Private coverage was the most common type of insurance among patients treated with PBT for recommended cancers, while Medicare was the most common insurance among patients treated with PBT for cancers for which the treatment’s efficacy is still under investigation.
Disparites in PBT use
The study also found that Black patients were less likely to be treated with PBT than white patients (0.3% vs. 0.5%), especially for cancers for which PBT is recommended over traditional radiation therapy.
In fact, this racial disparity widened as the number of facilities offering PBT increased, and the disparity did not disappear after the researchers accounted for socioeconomic status or type of health insurance.
“We found that PBT use increased nationally between 2004 and 2018 for all eligible cancers, especially for cancers for which PBT is the