Shortage of Radiation Oncologists May Require Adjustments to Mesothelioma Treatment
University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, with over 30 specialists on staff to support the treatment of mesothelioma patients and one of the premier treatment centers for mesothelioma, reports that there is a shortage of radiation oncologists in the United States and it could impact the treatment cancer patients receive in the future.
M.D. Anderson Cancer Center is among the top ranked cancer treatment centers in the United States. Among their cancer patients, Anderson treats approximately 150 mesothelioma patients each year, with the number continuing to grow. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that the number of deaths from malignant mesothelioma, an asbestos-related pulmonary cancer, increased from 2,482 in 1999 to 2,705 in 2005, the most recent year of complete data. Researchers expect the incidence of mesothelioma to remain elevated above historical levels until 2050.
According to Benjamin Smith, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at MD Anderson and lead author of the study published in the October 18, 2010, issue of The Journal of Clinical Oncology, in the next 10 years “the demand for radiation therapy will exceed the number of radiation oncologists practicing in the U.S. tenfold, which could profoundly affect the ability to provide patients with sufficient access to treatment.”
Radiation is one of the primary treatments for mesothelioma, and many other cancers, and is used to control the growth or spread of the cancer, attempt to cure cancer and for palliative care to reduce pain or other symptoms caused by cancer.
The researchers found that cancer patients requiring radiation in the next decade will increase 22 percent, while the number of new radiation oncologists will increase by just two percent. The calculations were based on 2010 numbers that project 3,943 radiation oncologists will treat close to 470,000 patients in the U.S. With the number of mesothelioma cases on the rise, concern for their radiation therapy could lead to revised treatment protocol.
The researchers suggested measures to handle the shortfall, such as using team-care models. The team model could incorporate physician assistants or advanced practice RNs to assist with the care of patients receiving radiation therapy, thus allowing more patients to receive treatment. They also suggested shortening the length of radiation treatments and even increasing the number of residents accepted into training programs.
Smith and his team pointed out that additional research is needed to ensure that any changes to treatment practices do not compromise the quality or access to care.