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Is A Radiation Therapy Shortage Looming?

October 20, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Nuclear Medicine, Practice Management
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The demand for radiation therapy for cancer patients will far outstrip the supply of radiation oncologists over the next decade, according to researchers at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“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,” said Benjamin Smith, MD, as quoted in an MD Anderson news release.

Dr. Smith, assistant professor in the department of radiation oncology at MD Anderson, is lead author of the study, which was published this week in the online edition of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

The study estimated that by 2020, the number of cancer patients requiring radiation therapy will increase by 22 percent, but the number of new full-time-equivalent radiation oncologists will increase by 2 percent.

The researchers blamed the projected increase in demand on demographic trends. The numbers of older adults and minority-group members are expected to increase, and certain cancers are more prevalent in those two groups. By 2020, the study estimates, demand for radiation therapy will increase by 38 percent for adults age 65 or older and by 45 percent for members of minority groups.

Dr. Smith and his colleagues proposed several ways to alleviate the shortage:

  • Use physician assistants and advance-practice registered nurses to assist in caring for patients receiving radiation therapy.
  • Provide shorter courses of radiation treatment. For some cancers, shorter treatment courses have been demonstrated to be just as effective as longer courses.
  • Increase the size of residency programs in order to train more radiation oncologists. (This one seems a little obvious.)

The researchers estimated future demand for radiation therapy by multiplying the current use of such therapy by population projections. Their guesses regarding the number of radiation oncologists took into account current class sizes and estimated retirement ages.

“While our projections in the number of full-time practicing radiation oncologists are the most accurate to date,” Dr. Smith cautioned, “the actual gap between patients and radiation oncologists will depend on the role of and need for radiation therapy in the future.”

That’s kind of obvious too. Still, the threat seems real enough, and so does the potential for affecting radiology practice.

Related seminar: The Business of Radiology

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