Access to thalidomide for the treatment of multiple myeloma in Canada: physician behaviours and ethical implications

L. Minuk, R. Sibbald, J. Peng, S. Bejaimal, I. Chin-Yee



Multiple myeloma is an incurable malignancy. Since the late 1990s, its management has changed with the introduction of novel agents. Thalidomide, which is often called a "novel" therapy, has significantly prolonged survival in multiple myeloma and is con­sidered worldwide to be part of standard of care in this disease. However, thalidomide is not approved in Canada, leading to problems with drug access for patients.


Our study surveyed Canadian hematologists on their thalidomide prescribing practices and difficulties with drug access. We address some of the ethical issues facing patients and their doctors who are unable to obtain or afford the drug, and who therefore resort to alternative means such as illegal importation.


Of the 411 Canadian hematologists contacted, 122 completed the survey, 97 reported that they did not treat myeloma, and 192 did not respond. Assuming that all non-responders treat myeloma, our estimated overall response rate from physicians who treat this disease was 39%. Survey participants indicated that, in Canada, access to thalidomide is a major issue for physicians and myeloma patients alike, and that 81% of respondents are dissatisfied or very dissatis­fied with the drug access process. Many physicians felt that the special access process for thalidomide is unduly onerous, influences treatment decisions, and invades patient privacy. We found that 20% of physicians were unaware of the legal implications of obtaining thalidomide from other countries and that at least 23% overtly or covertly support patients in obtaining the drug from a non-Health-Canada-approved source.


The current lack of access to thalidomide in Canada is a concerning problem for patients and health care providers dealing with myeloma. Regulatory changes at the federal level (Health Canada) need to be re-examined to promptly resolve this issue.

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ISSN: 1198-0052 (Print) ISSN: 1718-7729 (Online)