Travel-Time Disparities in Access to Proton Beam Therapy for Cancer Treatment

Todd Burus, Alexander D. Vanhelene, Michael K. Rooney, Krystle A. Lang Kuhs, W. Jay Christian, Christopher McNair, Sanjay Mishra, Arnold C. Paulino, Grace L. Smith, Steven J. Frank, Jeremy L. Warner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Importance: Proton beam therapy is an emerging radiotherapy treatment for patients with cancer that may produce similar outcomes as traditional photon-based therapy for many cancers while delivering lower amounts of toxic radiation to surrounding tissue. Geographic proximity to a proton facility is a critical component of ensuring equitable access both for indicated diagnoses and ongoing clinical trials. Objective: To characterize the distribution of proton facilities in the US, quantify drive-time access for the population, and investigate the likelihood of long commutes for certain population subgroups. Design, Setting, and Participants: This population-based cross-sectional study analyzed travel times to proton facilities in the US. Census tract variables in the contiguous US were measured between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2021. Statistical analysis was performed from September to November 2023. Exposures: Drive time in minutes to nearest proton facility. Population totals and prevalence of specific factors measured from the American Community Survey: age; race and ethnicity; insurance, disability, and income status; vehicle availability; broadband access; and urbanicity. Main Outcomes and Measures: Poor access to proton facilities was defined as having a drive-time commute of at least 4 hours to the nearest location. Median drive time and percentage of population with poor access were calculated for the entire population and by population subgroups. Univariable and multivariable odds of poor access were also calculated for certain population subgroups. Results: Geographic access was considered for 327536032 residents of the contiguous US (60594624 [18.5%] Hispanic, 17974186 [5.5%] non-Hispanic Asian, 40146994 [12.3%] non-Hispanic Black, and 195265639 [59.6%] non-Hispanic White; 282031819 [86.1%] resided in urban counties). The median (IQR) drive time to the nearest proton facility was 96.1 (39.6-195.3) minutes; 119.8 million US residents (36.6%) lived within a 1-hour drive of the nearest proton facility, and 53.6 million (16.4%) required a commute of at least 4 hours. Persons identifying as non-Hispanic White had the longest median (IQR) commute time at 109.8 (48.0-197.6) minutes. Multivariable analysis identified rurality (odds ratio [OR], 2.45 [95% CI, 2.27-2.64]), age 65 years or older (OR, 1.09 [95% CI, 1.06-1.11]), and living below the federal poverty line (OR, 1.22 [1.20-1.25]) as factors associated with commute times of at least 4 hours. Conclusions and Relevance: This cross-sectional study of drive-time access to proton beam therapy found that disparities in access existed among certain populations in the US. These results suggest that such disparities present a barrier to an emerging technology in cancer treatment and inhibit equitable access to ongoing clinical trials.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E2410670
JournalJAMA network open
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 17 2024

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© 2024 American Medical Association. All rights reserved.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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