Our View: Critics of proton beam facility miss the point

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Did you pay $700 or more for a CD player when they first hit the market, even though you had a perfectly good cassette tape deck and a record player? Is there a DVD player gathering dust in your office because you now own a Blue-Ray player?

It's human nature. We like new things, and no matter how expensive or even "unnecessary" a new technology might seem when it first hits the marketplace, there are always people who take the leap. They plunk down their money and happily declare, "I don't care what it costs — it's better than what I had, and I need it."

Those trailblazers are often mocked, criticized or ridiculed for their exorbitance, but within a few months or years, people are lining up to follow their lead. By then, the "first ones into the pool" are already pursuing the next big thing. Some lead, some follow — and others wait just long enough for the bugs to be worked out before taking the leap themselves.

Yes, we're talking about Mayo Clinic and its entry into the field of proton beam therapy.

On Tuesday, Mayo gave the public a first look inside its latest achievement, the Richard O. Jacobson Building, where next year cancer patients will receive the most sophisticated form of radiation treatment available in the world today.


It's a huge building that cost $190 million. Proton beam therapy involves incredibly complex technology, so it's more expensive than conventional radiation therapy. For some of the patients who receive it, the long-term advantages of proton-beam therapy over conventional radiation might not be significant.

So, according to some experts (and a Star-Tribune story published Wednesday), this makes Mayo's new cancer treatment center "Exhibit A in what's wrong with American health care."

We blinked when we read that. Then we read it again. The more often we look at this statement, the more preposterous it becomes.

Mayo Clinic isn't building the first proton therapy center in the nation. This is tried-and-true technology that's existed for decades, and Mayo's radiation oncology department frequently refers patients to proton therapy centers in Massachusetts, Florida and Texas — and with good reason. When the patient is a child, especially with a tumor near a vital organ, proton beam therapy offers potentially life-saving advantages. It delivers the radiation precisely and directly into the tumor, while leaving healthy tissue untouched.

So now, instead of having to go to Boston or Houston for a month of treatment, families in the Midwest will be able to come to Rochester. For cancer-stricken kids in the Twin Cities, western Wisconsin and northeast Iowa, that means more nights sleeping in their own beds, more time playing with their friends and fewer missed work days for their parents. For families from Chicago, Des Moines and the Dakotas, it will mean a chance to drive home for a weekend during the treatment process, as opposed to spending a thousand dollars on airfare.

Fortunately, it appears there aren't enough cancer-stricken kids in the Midwest to keep the proton therapy center fully booked. That means other patients will be treated there, most notably men with prostate cancer that might very well be treatable with conventional radiation therapies.

What's wrong with offering them something better? Some insurance companies will balk, but at the very least, a cancer patient deserves a chance to say "Yes, I'll pay more out-of-pocket to receive the best treatment available." Keep in mind the jury is still out, and it's entirely possible the advantages of using proton beam therapy to treat "ordinary" tumors are vastly underestimated.

The bottom line? It's easy to look askance at an expensive, specialized health-care facility, especially if some of the bills incurred there will be paid with taxpayer-funded plans such as Medicaid and Medicare.


But the moment a cancerous tumor is discovered in your child, spouse or parent, the cost of treatment becomes a secondary concern. If you want to know what's really "Exhibit A in what ails America's health-care system," we'd point at the influence insurance companies still try to wield in the decisions made by doctors and their patients.

Proton center begins process of "commissioning"

Related Topics: HEALTHCARE
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