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Why is end-of-life spending so high? Evidence from cancer patients

SIEPR
Nov 2020
Working Paper
20-047
By  Dan Zeltzer, Liran Einav, Amy Finkelstein, Tzvi Shir, Salomon M. Stemmer, Ran D. Balicer
The concentration of healthcare spending at the end of life is widely documented but poorly understood. To gain insight, we focus on patients newly diagnosed with cancer. They display the familiar pattern: even among cancer patients with similar initial prognoses, monthly spending in the year post diagnosis is over twice as high for those who die within the year than those who survive. This elevated spending on decedents is almost entirely driven by higher inpatient spending, particularly low-intensity admissions, which rise as the prognosis deteriorates. However, even for patients with very poor prognoses at the time of admission, most low-intensity admissions do not result in death, making it difficult to target spending reductions. We also find that among patients with the same cancer type and initial prognosis, end-of-life spending is substantially more elevated for younger patients compared to older patients, suggesting that treatment decisions are not exclusively present-focused. Taken together, these results provide a richer understanding of the sources of high end-of-life spending, without revealing any natural “remedies.”