Study projects tenfold difference between supply and demand of radiation oncologists

Over the next 10 years, the demand for radiation therapy will exceed the number of radiation oncologists practicing in the United States, according to a study published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology (2010 Oct 18. [Epub ahead of print]).

For the study, Benjamin Smith, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and colleagues used figures on current radiation therapy use and population projections from the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER)-17 database. Then, to project the number of radiation oncologists in 2020, the researchers examined the current number of board certified radiation oncologists and active residents who would become certified by 2014.

Results from the study revealed that over the next decade, the number of cancer patients requiring radiation therapy will increase by 22%, while the number of full-time equivalent oncologists entering the workforce will increase by only 2%. In addition, data from the study approximated that the need for radiation therapy for adults 65 years old or older will increase 38% and for minorities, the demand will increase by 45%.

“Shortages mean double trouble,” said Dr. Smith. “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.”

Based on the study's findings, Dr. Smith and his team offered several strategies to offset the projected shortage which included adopting a patient management team model, providing shorter radiation treatment courses, and increasing the size of residency programs.

“For the first time, we have a clearer sense of how a shortage in the oncology field may play out,” said Dr. 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 and need for radiation therapy in the future.”

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