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30Aug 2013

M.D. Anderson's top national cancer center rating aided by huge error in data.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has been the top-ranked cancer center on US News & World Report's best-of list for the past 7 years. But that top ranking was aided by a massive error in data used to evaluate its care.

The error in M.D. Anderson's favor was made by--M.D. Anderson! Avery Comarow, who assembles the rankings at U.S. News, told The Cancer Letter that this was a huge "screw-up." The hospital systematically misclassified emergency patients, which led to the exclusion of nearly 40 percent of admissions, Paul Goldberg, The Cancer Letter's editor, reported. He said the error was discovered in 2009, but no way could be found to correct it. "Since U.S. News averages data over three years, the results of the M.D. Anderson top rating by the magazine released July 16 are still partially based on tainted data," he wrote.

The Cancer Letter got the scoop on this story, which it reported on July 19. But I didn't find out about it until Nick Mulcahy did a nice recap on Aug. 28 at Medscape.

The U.S. News ranking is not a trivial thing, Goldberg explained. "The top spot in U.S. News rating of cancer hospitals represents the ultimate bragging rights in oncology. The ranking—particularly the top spot—is of vital significance to the cancer centers as they compete for patients both locally and worldwide. Also, the No. 1 rating strengthens a center’s ability to raise funds." The distorted ratings left Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center as the "perpetual runner up," Goldberg wrote.

This is the latest in a string of incidents for which I've criticized M.D. Anderson here. In November, 2012, it collaborated with CNN in what I thought was the worst example of cancer hype ever. (I've since had occasion to revise that opinion. Others have challenged M.D. Anderson's supremacy.)  In April, it got glowing coverage from TIME magazine, in a story accompanied by only one ad--for M.D. Anderson. In June, one M.D. Anderson oncologist tried to poison another.

Mulcahy asked Comarow what happened, and Comarow said, "M.D. Anderson said they were not aware of it, and I believe them."

I don't. Or at least I don't believe them until they own up to it and explain what happened. Mulcahy asked; he reports that M.D. Anderson didn't respond.

-Paul Raeburn

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