In the fall of 2019, the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia started a pilot program of home-based chemotherapy for two treatment regimens (one via infusion and one via injection). Six months later, the Cancer Care at Home program had treated 40 patients.
The uptake within the university’s large regional health system was acceptable but not rapid, admitted Amy Laughlin, MD, a hematology-oncology fellow involved with the program.
Then COVID-19 arrived, along with related travel restrictions.
Suddenly, in a 5-week period (March to April 7), 175 patients had been treated ― a 300% increase from the first half year. Program staff jumped from 12 to 80 employees. The list of chemotherapies delivered went from two to seven, with more coming.
“We’re not the pilot anymore ― we’re the standard of care,” Laughlin told Medscape Medical News.
“The impact [on patients] is amazing,” she said. “As long as you are selecting the right patients and right therapy, it is feasible and even preferable for a lot of patients.”
For example, patients with hormone-positive breast cancer who receive leuprolide (to shut down the ovaries and suppress estrogen production) ordinarily would have to visit a Penn facility for an injection every month, potentially for years. Now, a nurse can meet patients at home (or before the COVID-19 pandemic, even at their place of work) and administer the injection, saving the patient travel time and associated costs.
This home-based chemotherapy service does not appear to be offered elsewhere in the United States, and a major oncology organization ― the Community Oncology Alliance ― is opposed to the practice because of patient safety concerns.
The service is not offered at a sample of cancer centers queried by Medscape Medical News, including the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Moores Cancer Center, the University of California, San Diego.
Opposition Because of Safety Concerns
On April 9, the Community Oncology Alliance (COA) issued a statement saying it “fundamentally opposes home infusion of chemotherapy, cancer immunotherapy, and cancer treatment supportive drugs because of serious patient safety concerns.”
The COA warned that “many of the side effects caused by cancer treatment can have a rapid, unpredictable onset that places patients in incredible jeopardy and can even be life-threatening.”
In contrast, in a recent communication related to COVID-19, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network tacitly endorsed the concept, stating that a number of chemotherapies may potentially be administered at home, but it did not include guidelines for doing so.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology said that chemotherapy at home is “an issue [we] are monitoring closely,” according to a spokesperson.
Criteria for home-based chemotherapy at Penn include use of anticancer therapies that a patient has previously tolerated and low toxicity (that can be readily managed in the home setting). In addition, patients must be capable of following a med chart.
The chemotherapy is reconstituted at a Penn facility in a Philadelphia suburb. A courier then delivers the drug to the patient’s home, where it is administered by an oncology-trained nurse. Drugs must be stable for at least a few hours to qualify for the program.
The Penn program started with two regimens: EPOCH (etoposide, vincristine, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, and prednisone) for lymphoma, and leuprolide acetate injections for either breast or prostate cancer.
The two treatments are polar opposites in terms of complexity, common usage, and time required, which was intended, said Laughlin.
Time to deliver the chemo varies from a matter of minutes with leuprolide to more than 2 hours for rituximab, a lymphoma drug that may be added to EPOCH.
The current list of at-home chemo agents in the Penn program also includes bortezomib, lanreotide, zoledronic acid, and denosumab. Soon to come are rituximab and pembrolizumab for lung cancer and head and neck cancer.
Already Practiced in Some European Countries
Home-based chemotherapy dates from at least the 1980s in the medical literature and is practiced in some European countries.
A 2018 randomized study of adjuvant treatment with capecitabine and oxaliplatin for stage II/III colon cancer in Denmark, where home-based care has been practiced for the past 2 years and is growing in use, concluded that “it might be a valuable alternative to treatment at an outpatient clinic.”
However, in the study, there was no difference in quality of life between the home and outpatient settings, which is somewhat surprising, inasmuch as a major appeal to receiving chemotherapy at home is that it is less disruptive compared to receiving it in a hospital or clinic, which requires travel.
Also, chemo at home “may be resource intensive” and have a “lower throughput of patients due to transportation time,” cautioned the Danish investigators, who were from Herlev and Gentofte Hospital.
A 2015 review called home chemo “a safe and patient‐centred alternative to hospital‐ and outpatient‐based service.” Jenna Evans, PhD, McMaster University, Toronto, Canada, and lead author of that review, says there are two major barriers to infusion chemotherapy in homes.
One is inadequate resources in the community, such as oncology-trained nurses to deliver treatment, and the other is perceptions of safety and quality, including among healthcare providers.
COVID-19 might prompt more chemo at home, said Evans, a health policy expert, in an email to Medscape Medical News. “It is not unusual for change of this type and scale to require a seismic event to become more mainstream,” she argued.
Reimbursement for home-based chemo is usually the same as for chemo in a free-standing infusion suite, says Cassandra Redmond, PharmD, MBA, director of pharmacy, Penn Home Infusion Therapy.
Private insurers and Medicare cover a subset of infused medications at home, but coverage is limited. “The opportunity now is to expand these initiatives…to include other cancer therapies,” she said about coverage.