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What it means to be an Australian with skin cancer

Written by Dr Genevieve Yates · Monday 27th January 2014

Each year on the 26th of January, Australia Day, Australians of all shapes, sizes and political persuasions are encouraged to reflect on what it means to be living in this big, brown, sunny land of ours. It is a time to acknowledge past wrongs, honour outstanding Australians, welcome new citizens, and perhaps toss a lamb chop on the barbie (barbecue), enjoying the great Australian summer. It is also a time to count our blessings.

Australians whinge a lot about our health system. While I am certainly not suggesting the model we have is anywhere near perfect, it could be a whole lot worse.

I recently read this NY times article which talks about the astronomical and ever-rising health care costs in the US and suggests that this, at least sometimes, involves a lack of informed consent (re: costs and alternative treatment options). The US is certainly not the “land of the free” when it comes to health care.

There are many factors involved, not least being the trend in the US to provide specialised care for conditions that are competently and cost-effectively dealt with in primary care (by GPs) in Australia.

The article gives examples such as a five minute consult conducted by a dermatologist, during which liquid nitrogen was applied to a wart, costing the patient $500. In Australia, (if bulk billed by a GP) it would have cost the patient nothing and the taxpayer $16.60 (slightly higher if the patient was a pensioner).

It describes a benign mole shaved off by a nurse practitioner (with a scalpel, no stitches) costing the patient $914.56. In Australia, it could be done for under $50.

The most staggering example of all was the description of the treatment of a small facial Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC) which cost over $25000 (no, that is not a typo – twenty five THOUSAND dollars). In Australia, it would probably have cost the taxpayer less than $200 for its removal (depending on exact size, location and method of closure). The patient interviewed for the article was sent for Mohs surgery (and claims she was not given a choice in the matter).

Mohs (pronounced “Moe’s” as in Moe’s Tavern from The Simpsons) is a highly effective technique for treating skin cancer and minimises the loss of non-cancerous tissue (in traditional skin cancer surgery you deliberately remove some of the surrounding normal skin to ensure you’ve excised all of the cancerous cells) . Wikipedia entry on Mohs. This can be of great benefit in a small minority of cancers. However, this super-specialised technique is very expensive and time/ labour intensive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has become extremely popular in the US. ”Moh’s for everything” seems to be the new catch cry when it comes to skin cancer treatment in the US.

In the past two years, working very part time in skin cancer medicine in Australia, I have diagnosed literally hundreds of BCCs (Basal Cell Carcinomas). The vast majority of these I successfully treated (ie cured) in our practice without needing any specialist help. A handful were referred to general or plastic surgeons and one, only one, was referred for Mohs surgery. The nearest Mohs surgeon being 200 kilometres away from our clinic may have something to do with the low referral rate, but the fact remains, most BCCs (facial or otherwise), can be cured and have a good cosmetic outcome, without the need for Mohs surgery.

To my mind, using Mohs on garden variety BCCs is like employing a team of chefs to come into your kitchen each morning to place bread in your toaster and then butter it for you. Overkill.

Those soaking up some fine Aussie sunshine on the beach or at a backyard barbie with friends this Australia Day, gifting their skin with perfect skin-cancer-growing conditions, may wish to give thanks that when their BCCs bloom, affordable (relative to costs in the US, at least) treatment is right under their cancerous noses.

Being the skin cancer capital of the world is perhaps not a title of which Australians should be proud, but the way we can treat them effectively, without breaking the bank, should be.

Dr Genevieve Yates is an Australian GP, medical educator, medico-legal presenter and writer. You can read more of her work at http://genevieveyates.com/