BACKGROUND: Comorbidity is known to increase risk of death in cancer patients, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. The means of measuring comorbidity to assess risk of death has not been studied in any depth in Aboriginal patients in Australia. In this study, conventional and customized comorbidity indices were used to investigate effects of comorbidity on cancer survival by Aboriginal status and to determine whether comorbidity explains survival disparities.
METHODS: A retrospective cohort study was undertaken using linked population-based South Australian Cancer Registry and hospital inpatient data for 777 Aboriginal people diagnosed with primary cancer between 1990 and 2010 and 777 randomly selected non-Aboriginal controls matched by sex, birth year, diagnosis year and tumour type. A customised comorbidity index was developed by examining associations of comorbid conditions with 1-year all-cause mortality within the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal patient groups separately using Cox proportional hazard model, adjusting for age, stage, sex and primary site. The adjusted hazard ratios for comorbid conditions were used as weights for these conditions in index development. The comorbidity index score for combined analyses was the sum of the weights across the comorbid conditions for each case from the two groups.
RESULTS: The two most prevalent comorbidities in the Aboriginal cohort were "uncomplicated" hypertension (13.5%) and diabetes without complications (10.8%), yet in non-Aboriginal people, the comorbidities were "uncomplicated" hypertension (7.1%) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (4.4%). Higher comorbidity scores were associated with higher all-cause and cancer-specific mortality. The new index showed minor improvements in predictive ability and model fit when compared with three common generic comparison indices. After accounting for the competing risk of other deaths, stage at diagnosis, socioeconomic status, area remoteness and comorbidity, the increased risk of cancer death in Aboriginal people remained.
CONCLUSIONS: Our new customised index performed at least as well, although not markedly better than the generic indices. We conclude that in broad terms, the generic indices are reasonably effective for adjusting for comorbidity when comparing survival outcomes by Aboriginal status. Irrespective of the index used, comorbidity has a negative impact on cancer-specific survival, but this does not fully explain the lower survival in Aboriginal patients.