October 19th, 2010
02:17 PM ET

Radiation oncologists will be in short supply, study finds

The demand for radiation therapy over the next decade will be 10 times higher than the number of practicing radiation oncologists according to a new study in The Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Researchers from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center say the number of cancer patients needing radiation therapy will rise by 22 percent but the number of new, full-time radiation oncologists will increase just 2 percent.

"Shortages mean double trouble," said Dr. Benjamin Smith, assistant professor of Radiation Oncology at M.D. Anderson. "Since research has shown that a delay between diagnosis and the start of radiation therapy can reduce its effectiveness, oncologists and radiologists must collaborate even more so the quality of care doesn't break down at multiple points."

The shortage could profoundly affect patient care.  The study data suggests groups most likely to feel the impact are people 65 years and older who could see the need for radiation therapy increase 38 percent, and minorities who could see demand increase 45 percent.

Researchers say implementing a number of strategies including increasing the size of residency programs for radiation oncologists and changing the treatment course to make it shorter will help counteract these shortages.

"For the first time, we have a clearer sense of how a shortage in the oncology field may play out," said Smith. "While our projections in the number of full-time practicing radiation oncologists are the most accurate to date, the actual gap between patients and radiation oncologists will depend on the role of and need for radiation therapy in the future."

In 2007, the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) commissioned a study that predicts a significant shortage of cancer doctors–up to 4,000 by 2020.

"The last several decades have been a time of extraordinary progress in cancer research and patient care," said Michael Goldstein, M.D., chair of the ASCO Workforce in Oncology Task Force and an oncologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "But unless we address the coming shortage of oncologists now, we will face a major challenge in ensuring that all patients receive high-quality care, and benefit from recent advances."

ASCO estimates 1.4 million people will learn they have some form of cancer this year, and more than 560,000 will die of the disease making cancer the second-leading cause of death in this country. According to the American Cancer Society, half of all men and one-third of all women in the United States will get some form of cancer in their lifetime.

soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Constantine

    Hmm – possible career change?

    October 19, 2010 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Mark

    That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard. The average rad onc was treating 30+ patients 10years ago, now it is under 20 patients a day on average. Technology has made our jobs easier. Who comes up with this nonsense.

    October 20, 2010 at 08:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sean

      I can only assume that Mark equates accuracy with ease but the average time that any physician spends in direct patient contact has continued to decline over the last 20 years. Technology has allowed Radiation Oncologists to perform much more accurate evaluations of patients and to design extremely complicated and sophisticated treatments at the cost of much more time being spent in front of a computer than in front of the patient. I embrace the technological advances and accept the associated time commitment they bring but not the medicolegal hassles that have advanced at an even greater pace. As I refuse to sacrifice the time spent my patients, I find the increased demands for written documentation, dictation and ad nauseum justification for every step in the care of a deserving patient with cancer to be consuming an excessive amount of time. That time would be better spent seeing more patients, calling patients' doctors or family members or providing additional services to cancer patients rather than just protecting my cancer center and practice from the ever-present fear of a Medicare audit. I would gladly see more patients for the same pay if I could just treat them and not have my behavior dictated by the chameleon rules of Medicare "compliance." But since the plan is to decrease medicare expenditures, all of the inane bureaucratic hoops we have to jump through serve to separate the doctor from the patient in order to limit services and thus supposed opportunities to bill. If the driving force for Dr Majid is "the paycheck" he should work for the government.

      October 22, 2010 at 19:21 | Report abuse |
  3. Mike

    Mark thinks this is dumb because he has no idea what he is talking about. Radiation oncology has changed drastically over the past 10-20 years making therapy more precise with less side effects. This takes up more machine time. Most of us treat 30-40 patients a day in our group. The key to the article is that demand is increasing. Linear accelerators used to deliver radiation are governed by certificates of need in many states, including mine. Even if you can get another linear accelerator granted the cost for a good new one is typically north of 3 million dollars. What poor Mark was referring to were the days when radiation was just point and shoot – far from the case today.

    October 20, 2010 at 09:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Robin Davis

    At the risk of soundin' crude,I am a retired nuke trained USN eng. I have thru out my career tried to explain what the problem was and and work less by solving the problem,( there are generous plenty of them). Knowing there are few people of the eng persuasion who feel as I do. I said what the hay if I am not called on the weekend I can go fishin' with my son. During the same time with the experience of being asked if, I would destroy the world with my belly full of very large firecrackers of the nuclear variety. It was along about then after I had figured out I knew the difference or could decern the difference between a valid launch order and an invalid one. I said yes and decided to take on the Medical profession. I realize it may seem convoluted however at the same time I realized stealth, sarcasm and humor and robots might pave the way.
    Robots may make Obama care might work unless the AMA rears it's ugly head inconsert with religion. So there we find ourselves.

    October 20, 2010 at 15:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Omar Majid MD

    This I knew, over ten years ago. The advent of technology and the inability of most physicians, who cannot and will not learn has hampered the way of "Radiation Doctors" apply the art they have learned. I wish compassion and real decisions are made in this art; and not the driving force of the "paycheck". OM

    October 20, 2010 at 20:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Baanetse Motsepe

    Cancer is an interesting disease. At some stages, it has no warning signs, leaving it undetected and dormant for months or years, only to cause greater problems later on. Cancer can be problematic and sometimes, even fatal. Use the tips in this article to learn more about cancer.

    November 20, 2012 at 22:04 | Report abuse | Reply

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