Peter Pitts– Peter Pitts is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former FDA Associate Commissioner. The views expressed are his own. –

As part of its healthcare reform bills, Congress is calling for a more aggressive use of comparative effectiveness research (CER). What does this mean? Is comparative effectiveness the same thing as cost effectiveness?

No. There’s a big difference.

Cost effectiveness research is what The United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) does. NICE uses a measure known as a Quality Adjusted Life Year (QALY) to assess whether or not a treatment is cost-effective or not. If providing an additional year of life costs more than $50,000 — the average price of a fully-loaded Land Rover — NICE won’t recommend that treatment.

For example, NICE’s preliminary decision was that four new kidney cancer drugs — Torisel, Avastin, Nexavar, and Sutent — should not be reimbursed by the National Health Service (NHS) because, despite clinical evidence that these drugs can actually help, they weren’t “cost effective.”

Currently, the only available treatment for metastatic renal cell cancer is immunotherapy. This halts the disease’s progress for just four months on average. But if a person isn’t a candidate for immunotherapy, or the treatment doesn’t work, that’s it. They have no other treatment options.