What can be done to alleviate the pending national shortage of cancer doctors?
Cancer crisis looms 121008 HEALTH 2 Morris News Service What can be done to alleviate the pending national shortage of cancer doctors?
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Story last updated at 12/10/2008 - 11:29 am

Cancer crisis looms
Fewer oncologists will be available

What can be done to alleviate the pending national shortage of cancer doctors?

Demand for cancer care is expected to increase 48 percent between now and 2020, according to a study commissioned by the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Patient visits to oncologists also will jump by 14 percent.

The American Cancer Society estimates 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will develop cancer in their lifetimes. Survival rates also are increasing, forcing doctors to spend more time with patients to prevent or treat recurring cases.

The study estimates a shortage of 2,550 to 4,080 oncologists - roughly 25 percent to 40 percent of the 2005 supply - for 2020 cancer-care seekers.

"We don't believe there will be a large increase in the number of medical oncologists trained," said Dr. Dean Bajorin, a New York oncologist who is co-chairman of the Workforce Advisory Group for the American Society of Clinical Oncologists. "So, we'll have to come up with what we believe to be better ways to provide care."

Caregivers will have to provide care in more of a team setting, relying on non-physician providers to ease workloads.

Oncologists also will need to rely more on primary-care doctors to treat cancer patients in remission rather than seeing those patients themselves, Bajorin said.

"I'm not sure there's much the typical patient can do," he said. "Cancer care in the future might be a little different than it is right now."

Fewer doctors are entering the field, and that can only be addressed by the nation's medical schools.

"There's kind of a train wreck coming," said oncologist Vance Esler, a partner in the Amarillo office of Texas Oncology. "As people are living longer, they're living long enough to get cancer."

Esler said the number of oncologists nationwide is decreasing every year. Many are retiring with the average age more than 50, partly because of the job's strain.

"Taking care of cancer patients is very demanding," Esler said. "It's emotionally and physically and timewise. It's very demanding, and people can burn out."

But there's a long pipeline for replacing a retired oncologist. Typically, it takes 14 years from medical school to residency training to become a surgical oncologist. So, there's a long time between recruitment and practice, said Mark Arredondo, a surgical oncologist with the Texas Tech University School of Medicine.

Esler just hopes someone is there to treat him when and if he develops cancer.