Oncologists who want to try a treatment outside the standard provincial protocol don't need to wait long for approval, according to a senior official with the BC Cancer Agency.
The compassionate access program for nonstandard treatments generally only requires two to four hours for approval and never takes longer than 48 hours, Dr. Charles Blanke, vice-president of systemic therapy at the BC Cancer Centre explained.
He said patients can access that program if there's a need to use a drug on a uncommon tumour that doesn't fall within one of the general treatment protocols.
Many former patients of Dr. Suresh Katakkar praised the oncologist for finding treatments outside of the normal protocols, but the doctor didn't always get the necessary approvals. Katakkar resigned as the chief oncologist for the BC Cancer Centre for the North in June after an investigation was launched into his methods of treatment. The investigation is continuing.
Katakkar wrote in a letter to patients that one reason he didn't always follow the procedure is because the length it took to have his non-conventional treatments approved.
"To get the permission to do something like this would have taken a long long time and patient would not have made that long," Katakkar wrote, detailing the case of patient Holly Hill.
Although Hill died of cancer in May, her father Jay Hill doesn't believe the treatment by Katakkar played any part in her death.
The cancer agency isn't commenting on the specifics of Katakkar's case, pending the review.
When approving a treatment, the provincial body takes into account the scientific merit of the drug as well as its cost. If a medication meets the criteria and gets a strong recommendation from the review panel, the cancer agency requests appropriate funding for its use from the government.
"Basically we look at the bang for the buck," Blanke said. "We look at how much longer patients will live, or how much better they will live."
Blanke said the agency is working with a "very large pie" when it comes to procuring cancer medication, but cautioned it's not unlimited.
It's possible that in some cases a drug is approved for use in other provinces, but doesn't meet the agency standard. However Blanke contends the opposite is more often the case. He said BC is generally an early adopter of new medications.
BC is also participating in the Pan Canadian Oncology Drug Review, which has experts from nine provinces examining new treatments as they become available.
"Our agreement is if (the pan-Canadian process) recommends a drug for funding, and if by some miracle we haven't already decided ourselves to consider it for funding, we will make every possible effort to pay for that treatment," Blanke said.