Better insurance coverage within minority populations can help close racial disparities in the detection of early-stage breast cancer, according to new study.

Insurance coverage “mediates nearly half of the increased risk for later-stage breast cancer diagnosis seen among racial/ethnic minorities,” Naomi Ko, MD, of Boston University and colleagues wrote in a research report published in JAMA Oncology.

With Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program data, the researchers looked at patient records on 177,075 women (148,124 insured and 28,951 uninsured or on Medicaid) aged 40-64 years who received a breast cancer diagnosis between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2016. They found that a higher proportion of women (20%) uninsured or on Medicaid received a diagnosis of a higher-stage breast cancer (stage III), compared with women who had health insurance (11%).

More non-Hispanic black women (17%), American Indian or Alaskan native (15%), and Hispanic women (16%) received a stage III breast cancer diagnosis, compared with non-Hispanic white women (12%). Non-Hispanic white women were more likely to have insurance coverage at the time of diagnosis (89%), compared with non-Hispanic black women (75%), American Indian or Alaskan native (58%), and Hispanic women (67%).

“Without insurance coverage, the lack of prevention, screening, and access to care, as well as delays in diagnosis, lead to later stage of disease at diagnosis and thus worse survival,” Dr. Ko and colleagues wrote, adding that patients with a diagnosis of later-stage cancer require more intensive treatment and are at higher risk for treatment-associated morbidity and poorer overall quality of life.

Another consequence of the later-stage diagnosis is increased financial costs related to treatment for these patients, according to the investigator. They cite research that shows stage III cancer was 58% more costly to treat than was stage I or II breast cancer.

“Overall, earlier stage at diagnosis of breast cancer is not only beneficial for individual patients and families but also on society as a whole to decrease costs and equity among all populations,” Dr. Ko and colleagues added.

The researchers noted some of the limitations of the study, which include the source of data (the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program, which covers 18 regions and might not be generalizable to all populations), as well as the age range of the studied population.

That being said, the authors also acknowledged that the findings “do not suggest that insurance alone will eliminate racial/ethnic disparities in breast cancer,” but “the ability to quantify the association that insurance has with breast cancer stage is relevant to potential policy changes regarding insurance and a prioritization of solutions for the increased burden of cancer mortality and morbidity disproportionately placed on racial/ethnic minority populations.”

Funding sources include the National Institutes of Health, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Cancer Institute, and National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The authors reported no conflicts of interest related to this study.

SOURCE: Ko N et al. JAMA Onc. 2020 Jan 9. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2019.5672.