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Shortage of cancer doctors on the horizon, alternatives sought

(HealthDay News) The prognosis for many cancer patients has been improving, with earlier diagnoses of some cancers, new treatments, and people surviving longer and longer.

But all is not well in the fight against this pernicious disease. By the year 2020, the United States will have a shortage of cancer doctors, according to a report issued in 2007.

The shortfall is expected to reach as many as 4,080 by 2020, according to the report issued by the American Society for Clinical Oncology.

It isn't here yet. "As of 2007, we were in equilibrium," said Dr. Dean Bajorin, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and co-chairman of the society's Workforce Implementation Working Group, which developed the report.

"It looks like the demand for services appear comparable to provision of services," he said. "But we think it won't get better than that. The shortage will be gradual over time."

It's blamed on a number of factors, he said. Among them, the aging of the population, with the number of Americans beyond age 65 expected to double between 2000 and 2030. Cancer is more common in older Americans.

And many oncologists are expected to be retiring soon, Bajorin said.

Yet another factor is the rising number of female oncologists, he said. While the profession applauds the fact that there is more gender balance, studies have found women oncologists see fewer patients than do male oncologists, Bajorin said.

Exactly why isn't known, he said. "Some may work fewer hours because of family obligations," he said. "It may be more complicated than that. They may spend more time with their patients than do the men."

"We are doing a very good job of curing patients," Bajorin said. But one question being asked by his colleagues, in the face of the expected shortage, is whether cancer patients need to be cared for continually by oncologists.

One remedy to the shortage might be to train other doctors or nurse practitioners to take over some aspects of care, he said. They might be trained in "survivorship care," following patients after their cancer is in remission or has been eliminated.

The team approach toward cancer treatment may also beneficial, Bajorin added, with a shift from a primary cancer doctor providing care to an entire team providing care, with different health care professionals tending to patients at different stages.

Whether the shortage materializes exactly as predicted, learning to communicate with your oncologist and others on your team is crucial, according to the experts at CancerCare, a New York-based nonprofit organization providing support services to those affected by cancer.

Among their tips for communicating with your doctor and other health care team members: Take someone with you to the doctor if possible. A second set of ears always helps. Create a list of questions before you go, rank them in order of importance and take the list with you. Take a notebook or a tape record (ask permission to tape) to record the answers.

On the Web

To learn more about the cancer care team, visit the American Cancer Society.

SOURCES: Dean Bajorin, M.D., oncologist, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY, and co-chairman of the American Society for Clinical Oncology's Workforce Implementation Group; CancerCare, New York, NY; March 13, 2007, online edition, Journal of Oncology Practice
Publication date: June 2008
Authors: Kathleen Doheny, HealthDay reporter
Copyright © 2008 ScoutNews LLC. All rights reserved.

 


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