There is undeniable hope and optimism when looking at the future of cancer care. Cancer survival rates are steadily rising as oncologists continue to learn more about the 100+ unique types of cancer—and emerging variants—that exist. Thanks to new targeted therapies and remarkable improvements in genomics, cancer care physicians and researchers are finding better ways to treat each cancer type and improve health outcomes.
Despite this knowledge, however, there are still significant challenges ahead:
- There is a dramatic rise in cancer in people under 50.
- The costs of cancer care continue to increase.
- Barriers inhibit many patients from accessing care services.
- Society faces a serious shortage of oncologists.
To overcome these challenges, we must continue to empower treating oncologists—who provide about 80 percent of cancer care in the U.S.—with resources that help address their growing caseloads while ensuring optimal care is delivered in the community setting.
Oncology subspecialists, in particular, have an opportunity to help community oncologists gain insight into the latest advancements and best practices in testing and treatments, especially if they’re treating different types of cancers every day. Here’s how.
A growing gap in cancer expertise
The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) predicts that there will be a shortage of 2,393 oncologists by 2025.
To put this into perspective, there were 13,365 oncologists in the U.S. as of 2022, meaning there needs to be nearly 20 percent more oncologists to meet the anticipated demand for cancer care services.
Amplifying this challenge is the fact that nearly one in six Americans lives in a rural area—but 66 percent of rural counties have no oncologist. People in rural areas often have to travel far distances to receive care, which introduces new cost concerns and underscores the importance of receiving the right treatment for their unique circumstances.
While there are emerging treatments and targeted therapies that significantly improve treatment outcomes, many of these discoveries can take months to spread through journals and traditional sources to reach community clinical practices.
This paints an understandably difficult picture for community oncologists as they manage a growing volume of cases and may encounter different types of cancer with each patient. Without the right support, it can be incredibly difficult for oncologists to simultaneously keep up with the latest advancements in cancer care and see an average of 20 patients per day.
Greater collaboration can optimize cancer care outcomes
Oncology subspecialists at leading National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers will play a key role in helping community oncologists leverage the latest cancer knowledge.
At their core, NCI-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers aim to advance laboratory and clinical research into new and effective treatments for cancer patients.
This means that while oncologists can continue to focus largely on patient care, subspecialists can accelerate breakthroughs and disseminate this knowledge to community oncologists. It’s an efficient way to channel resources and more quickly evolve care approaches.
A few specific ways that subspecialists can help:
Provide expert case reviews. Oncologists should be able to access subspecialty expertise as needed to review treatment plans and access the latest evidence-based recommendations, thereby improving outcomes and avoiding unnecessary interventions. As oncologists learn more from these case reviews, they can activate these insights across their patients with similar cancers.
Promote clinical trials. Subspecialists can also keep community doctors aware of emerging clinical trials, which are key for advancing new treatments, and an estimated 70 percent of adult cancer patients are willing to participate in. It’s hard to expect community oncologists to keep up with patient visits and care plans while simultaneously researching emerging clinical trials and identifying patients who may qualify (especially considering that new trials arise frequently).
Recommend and interpret genetic testing results. In some cases, genetic testing can lead to significant improvements in cancer care. By collaborating with specialists, oncologists can more readily recommend and interpret genetic testing results to guide optimal treatment plans. These recommendations make it quicker for oncologists to prescribe increasingly personalized, evidence-based treatments.
Closing the cancer care knowledge gap
Community oncologists are unsung heroes who are helping people through one of life’s most difficult experiences.
Given the rise in cancer rates and a continuing shortage of oncologists, oncology subspecialists are vital for connecting community oncologists to the latest cancer breakthroughs. Further, their expertise can help community oncologists explore clinical trials and use genetic testing to improve care outcomes.
By coupling academic knowledge with expert local care, we can achieve a future where everyone should be able to receive optimal treatment for their unique cancer—regardless of the zip code they live in.
Todd Sachs is a surgeon and physician executive.