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Colorectal cancer costing Europe £16.3bn, Belfast-led research finds

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Colorectal cancer is costing Europe some £16.3 billion a year, new research led by the Queen’s University Belfast has found.

The figure includes direct expenditure as well as indirect costs including premature death and sick leave.

Colorectal cancer, described as the second leading cause of cancer death in Europe, claims one European life every three minutes.

It claims more than 16,000 deaths in the UK every year.

The new research, published in high impact journal Lancet Gastroenterology and Hepatology, also highlights the significant inequalities that European colorectal cancer patients experience, depending on where they live and how a higher spend on cancer drugs than on hospital care, did not always lead to better patient outcomes.

The research found the economic cost of colorectal cancer in Europe to be 19.1 billion euro (£16.3 billion) and 2.01 billion euro (£1.7 billion) in the UK.

This figure breaks down into direct expenditure on colorectal cancer care in Europe to 7.5 billion euro (£6.4 billion), just under 40% of the total cost.

In the UK the figure is 361 million euro (£307.8 million), at 18% of total cost.

The indirect economic impact, which measures the costs of premature death, temporary and permanent absence from work, and unpaid informal care, was 11.6 billion euro (£9.9 billion), over 60% of the total cost. In the UK the figure is 1.65 billion euro (£1.4 billion), at 82% of total cost.

Senior author on the paper, Mark Lawler, professor of digital health at Queen’s University Belfast, warned a lack of investment in screening and early diagnosis has created an “economic time bomb”.

“Our research highlights the enormous impact that colorectal cancer has, not only on the health of our citizens, but also increasingly on the financial prosperity of patients, their families, health systems and economies,” he said.

“By not investing appropriately in services such as screening, early diagnosis and treatment, we have created an economic time bomb that is placing an untenable burden on our health systems and on society.

“It’s not what you spend, it’s the way that you spend it.

“We must ensure that we use our precious healthcare resources in a way that ensures better outcomes for patients but delivered with cognisance of the financial pressures that health systems currently face, particularly in the context of Covid.”

The research also found a wide variation in the economic burden of colorectal cancer across Europe.

Countries with similar gross domestic product (GDP) per head of population had widely varying health-care expenditures on colorectal cancer, leading to significant inequalities for colorectal cancer patients, depending on where they live in Europe.

Expenditure on cancer drugs was found to have increased by over 200% on average over a six-year period, but was not necessarily associated with better outcomes.

The UK was one of several countries in the EUR-33 to spend significantly more on cancer drugs (151 million euro/£128.8 million; 42% of total costs) than on hospital care (117 million euro/£99.8 million; 32% of total costs), but this did not correlate with improved outcomes for patients.

Several central and western European countries also had significantly increased spend on cancer drugs (notably Ireland (+473%) and Austria (+369%), mostly due to increases in the use of targeted cancer drugs. In the UK, spend on cancer drugs went up by 352%, from 33 million euro to 151 million euro (£28.1 million to £128.8 million).

Declan French, professor of finance from Queen’s Management School and co-author of the study, added: “This is a very important piece of work on a common cancer with significant implications for the financing of health systems.

“It highlights how transdisciplinary cross-faculty research, bringing together expertise in finance and health from across the University, can give unique insights into health spending that can influence health policy and potentially enhance patient care.”

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