In a systematic review and meta-analysis, Lynne Forrest and colleagues find that patients with lung cancer who are more socioeconomically deprived are less likely to receive surgical treatment, chemotherapy, or any type of treatment combined, compared with patients who are more socioeconomically well off, regardless of cancer stage or type of health care system.
Intervention-generated inequalities are unintended variations in outcome that result from the organisation and delivery of health interventions. Socioeconomic inequalities in treatment may occur for some common cancers. Although the incidence and outcome of lung cancer varies with socioeconomic position (SEP), it is not known whether socioeconomic inequalities in treatment occur and how these might affect mortality. We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of existing research on socioeconomic inequalities in receipt of treatment for lung cancer.
Methods and Findings
MEDLINE, EMBASE, and Scopus were searched up to September 2012 for cohort studies of participants with a primary diagnosis of lung cancer (ICD10 C33 or C34), where the outcome was receipt of treatment (rates or odds of receiving treatment) and where the outcome was reported by a measure of SEP. Forty-six papers met the inclusion criteria, and 23 of these papers were included in meta-analysis. Socioeconomic inequalities in receipt of lung cancer treatment were observed. Lower SEP was associated with a reduced likelihood of receiving any treatment (odds ratio [OR] = 0.79 [95% CI 0.73 to 0.86], p<0.001), surgery (OR = 0.68 [CI 0.63 to 0.75], p<0.001) and chemotherapy (OR = 0.82 [95% CI 0.72 to 0.93], p = 0.003), but not radiotherapy (OR = 0.99 [95% CI 0.86 to 1.14], p = 0.89), for lung cancer. The association remained when stage was taken into account for receipt of surgery, and was found in both universal and non-universal health care systems.
Patients with lung cancer living in more socioeconomically deprived circumstances are less likely to receive any type of treatment, surgery, and chemotherapy. These inequalities cannot be accounted for by socioeconomic differences in stage at presentation or by differences in health care system. Further investigation is required to determine the patient, tumour, clinician, and system factors that may contribute to socioeconomic inequalities in receipt of lung cancer treatment.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Lung cancer is the most commonly occurring cancer worldwide and the commonest cause of cancer-related death. Like all cancers, lung cancer occurs when cells begin to grow uncontrollably because of changes in their genes. The most common trigger for these changes in lung cancer is exposure to cigarette smoke. Most cases of lung cancer are non-small cell lung cancer, the treatment for which depends on the “stage” of the disease when it is detected. Stage I tumors, which are confined to the lung, can be removed surgically. Stage II tumors, which have spread to nearby lymph nodes, are usually treated with surgery plus chemotherapy or radiotherapy. For more advanced tumors, which have spread throughout the chest (stage III) or throughout the body (stage IV), surgery generally does not help to slow tumor growth and the cancer is treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Small cell lung cancer, the other main type of lung cancer, is nearly always treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy but sometimes with surgery as well. Overall, because most lung cancers are not detected until they are quite advanced, less than 10% of people diagnosed with lung cancer survive for 5 years.
Why Was This Study Done?
As with many other cancers, socioeconomic inequalities have been reported for both the incidence of and the survival from lung cancer in several countries. It is thought that the incidence of lung cancer is higher among people of lower socioeconomic position than among wealthier people, in part because smoking rates are higher in poorer populations. Similarly, it has been suggested that survival is worse among poorer people because they tend to present with more advanced disease, which has a worse prognosis (predicted outcome) than early disease. But do socioeconomic inequalities in treatment exist for lung cancer and, if they do, could these inequalities contribute to the poor survival rates among populations of lower socioeconomic position? In this systematic review and meta-analysis, the researchers investigate the first of these questions. A systematic review uses predefined criteria to identify all the research on a given topic; a meta-analysis is a statistical approach that combines the results of several studies.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 46 published papers that studied people with lung cancer in whom receipt of treatment was reported in terms of an indicator of socioeconomic position, such as a measure of income or deprivation. Twenty-three of these papers were suitable for inclusion in a meta-analysis. Lower socioeconomic position was associated with a reduced likelihood of receiving any treatment. Specifically, the odds ratio (chance) of people in the lowest socioeconomic group receiving any treatment was 0.79 compared to people in the highest socioeconomic group. Lower socioeconomic position was also associated with a reduced chance of receiving surgery (OR = 0.68) and chemotherapy (OR = 0.82), but not radiotherapy. The association between socioeconomic position and surgery remained after taking cancer stage into account. That is, when receipt of surgery was examined in early-stage patients only, low socioeconomic position remained associated with reduced likelihood of surgery. Notably, the association between socioeconomic position and receipt of treatment was similar in studies undertaken in countries where health care is free at the point of service for everyone (for example, the UK) and in countries with primarily private insurance health care systems (for example, the US).
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that patients in more socioeconomically deprived circumstances are less likely to receive any type of treatment, surgery, and chemotherapy (but not radiotherapy) for lung cancer than people who are less socioeconomically deprived. Importantly, these inequalities cannot be explained by socioeconomic differences in stage at presentation or by differences in health care system. The accuracy of these findings may be affected by several factors. For example, it is possible that only studies that found an association between socioeconomic position and receipt of treatment have been published (publication bias). Moreover, the studies identified did not include information regarding patient preferences, which could help explain at least some of the differences. Nevertheless, these results do suggest that socioeconomic inequalities in receipt of treatment may exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities in the incidence of lung cancer and may contribute to the observed poorer outcomes in lower socioeconomic position groups. Further research is needed to determine the system and patient factors that contribute to socioeconomic inequalities in lung cancer treatment before clear recommendations for changes to policy and practice can be made.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001376.
The US National Cancer Institute provides information about all aspects of lung cancer for patients and health care professionals (in English and Spanish); a monograph entitled Area Socioeconomic Variations in U. S. Cancer Incidence, Mortality, Stage, Treatment, and Survival, 19751999 is available
Cancer Research UK also provides detailed information about lung cancer and links to other resources, such as a policy statement on socioeconomic inequalities in cancer and a monograph detailing cancer and health inequalities in the UK
The UK National Health Service Choices website has a page on lung cancer that includes personal stories about diagnosis and treatment
MedlinePlus provides links to other US sources of information about lung cancer (in English and Spanish)