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Widowed Early, a Cancer Doctor Now Studies Financial Strain of Medical Debt

Fumiko Chino seems uniquely suited to talk about the financial effects on an individual’s healthcare. Now a radiation oncologist at Duke University who is studying the impact of financial strain on cancer patients, she was once the young girlfriend of a man who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. The boyfriend, Andrew Ladd, ultimately died as a result of the disease. Now, 10 years later, Chino is no longer answering calls from debt collectors trying to recover unpaid medical debts while Ladd was in treatment.

Chino is part of a team that released a study earlier this month examining the financial impact of treatment on cancer patients.

The results of that study are eye-opening. Cancer patients spend, on average, 11% of their income on out-of-pocket healthcare costs that are not covered by healthcare insurance. As those costs rise, patients become less willing to make payments. More than 15% of the study’s participants report high or overwhelming financial distress. From the study:

This suggests that unpreparedness for treatment-related expenses may impact future cost-conscious decision making. Interventions to improve patient health care cost literacy might impact decision making. Indeed, the Institute of Medicine has listed cancer cost-related health literacy as a high priority for future research, and this priority has been included in the Center for Medicare and Medicaid’s Oncology Care Model.

What is most interesting is that, 10 years after Ladd died, Chino is still dealing with debt collectors.

“I still owe the debt,” she says. “I stopped answering phone calls from debt collectors.”

One of the problems is that doctors and healthcare facilities are not adequately preparing cancer patients and their families about the financial portion of the treatment. They’ve even given a name to this dynamic: financial toxicity.

 

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