No to Chemo at Home, With Exceptions, Says ASCO

Safety Concerns

Nick Mulcahy

August 04, 2020

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) "does not generally support" the administration of anticancer therapy in patients' homes because of safety concerns, the organization says in a new policy statement issued July 31.

At the same time, it supports exceptions: namely, when individual physicians and patients, having jointly discussed risks and benefits, agree to have treatments administered in the home.

The new policy is limited to intravenous infusion of anticancer agents such as chemotherapy, monoclonal antibodies, and other drugs — administered by health care personnel. It does not refer to injections.

The policy was prompted by regulatory flexibilities from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) made in response to the accelerating COVID-19 pandemic. "Among these flexibilities were new provisions that enabled providers to deliver care in a setting most appropriate — and safest — for individual patient circumstances," which has "opened the path for potential increases in use of home infusion for anticancer therapy," says ASCO.

"We're not ready to endorse [chemo at home] as a general policy until we have evidence that it's safe. At the same time, the policy gives physicians and patients autonomy to respond to whatever situation they find themselves in," said Stephen Grubbs, MD, ASCO's senior director of clinical affairs, in an interview with Medscape Medical News

"Antineoplastic drugs are effective at treating cancer but can be extremely toxic to normal human cells," reads the statement, which was written by a group of about 25 professionals, including Grubbs and other ASCO staff as well as independent advisors.

"There is a paucity of evidence directly comparing the safety of chemotherapy infusions in the home and outpatient settings," the ASCO policy explains.

ASCO's policy acknowledges that there are data "from other countries demonstrating that...home infusion can be safe, well-tolerated, and may be preferred by some patients." But such data are limited and only apply "to certain circumstances and for specific agents," it adds.

One US cancer center (in Philadelphia) already has an established chemo-at-home program and has seen an increase in its use during the pandemic, as reported by Medscape Medical News. Approached for comment, Justin Bekelman, MD, director of the Penn Center for Cancer Care Innovation in Philadelphia, interpreted the new ASCO policy in a positive light.

"Physicians at the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania and ASCO agree — home-based cancer therapy with oncologist oversight and well-designed safety protocols can be a safe option for patients with cancer," he said in a statement. 

Safety Is Major Concern

ASCO says its existing safety standards "may be difficult to satisfy in the home infusion context," including for safely resolving life-threatening emergencies.

Grubbs said that in the worst-case scenario, such as anaphylactoid reaction, "you can die from [it] if you don't manage it quickly and properly."

"When I was practicing, we always had a physician present right next to the infusion area because these are severe reactions that happen very quickly," he said, adding that "several a year" occurred when he practiced full-time.

Also, chemotherapy spills are a "big deal" in the home, as clean-up may be complex and difficult, added Grubbs.

Data from ASCO's PracticeNET program show that in the first months (March and April) of the COVID-19 pandemic, chemotherapy visits to infusion suites were not reduced in a dataset of 16 US practices, he noted. However, there are exceptions and variance based on location, Grubbs said, such as "hot spots" including New York City in April.

While the pandemic has no end in sight, ASCO issued a set of six recommendations for use of anticancer therapies infused in the home. First, they call for independent, publicly funded research to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of home infusion of anticancer therapy.

Next in importance, ASCO wants the current temporary regulation change from CMS due to the pandemic to end.

"CMS should not extend the temporary flexibility related to home infusion for Part B cancer drugs that was approved as part of their response to the public health emergency," they state.

Even before the pandemic, changes were afoot. Under the 21st Century Cures Act, which was passed in 2019 and will be implemented in 2021, CMS instituted a permanent home infusion therapy services benefit, which includes anticancer therapies. It "remains to be seen what, if any, shift away from outpatient infusion facilities will occur," observes ASCO in its policy statement.

Nick Mulcahy is an award-winning senior journalist for Medscape. He previously freelanced for HealthDay and MedPageToday, and had bylines in the WashingtonPost.com, MSNBC, and Yahoo. Reach him by email and follow him on Twitter.

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