The Mayo Clinic announced plans today to open two proton beam cancer therapy centers. The new centers, in Rochester and Phoenix, will feature an innovative cancer treatment called pencil beam scanning.
Mayo's move highlights not only the emerging science in cancer treatment but also the role competition plays in the world of health care.
As the name implies, pencil bean scanning is a more precise form of proton therapy that allows for greater control over radiation doses. The treatment times are shorter and there are fewer side effects than conventional radiation therapy for cancer patients.
There are nine other centers in the United States that offer proton therapy. But only one, in Houston, offers pencil beam technology, said Dr. Robert Foote, chair of Mayo's Department of Radiation Oncology in Rochester.
"All eight of Mayo's treatment rooms will have pencil beam scanning capabilities," Foote said. "This is the most sophisticated, state of the art proton beam capability that's available today."
Mayo will use the technology primarily for head and neck, breast, gastrointestinal, lung, spine and prostate cancers. Doctors also will use it to treat tumors in or near the eye.
Foote said the benefit of pencil beam scanning for children is especially clear.
"Children with cancer suffer the greatest long-term harm from conventional X-ray therapy since their organs are still developing," said Foote.
An advancement to traditional radio therapy, pencil beam scanning targets only the tumor, sparing the surrounding tissue, he said.
Proton therapy can be considerably more expensive than traditional radiation, in part because of the cost of the equipment and facility. The four-room Rochester location will cost approximately $188 million. A similar treatment center in Arizona is expected to cost $182 million. Funding for the projects will come from Mayo's capital budget and benefactor support, according to Mayo officials.
Stephen Parente, a health economist at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said Mayo has made a name for itself when it comes to medical innovation. The announcement of the new centers highlights the healthy competition among health care providers around Minnesota and the country.
"If the goal is ultimately seeing competition to come up with innovation that's ultimately going to improve people's lives, that's good competition," he said. "That's the type of competition ultimately we want to see because at the end of the day, patients win."
Parente said there's still an open question about whether the cost of such technologies outweighs the benefits. Medicare and most insurance companies normally cover proton therapy. But Parente said experts debate whether the cost is worth it for many common kinds of cancer that can be treated with less-expensive treatment.
Mayo officials say proton therapy is considered more cost-effective for selected patients.
The clinic will start treating patients by late 2014 or early 2015. Each of the two centers will have four treatment rooms. All eight treatment rooms at Mayo Clinic's two facilities will feature pencil beam treatment, Mayo CEO Dr. John Noseworthy said.
Construction of the Rochester facility is expected to create 500 construction jobs. In Minnesota, the program will ultimately employ more than 120 new staff members.