WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is heading toward a major shortage of cancer doctors by 2020 as the population ages and the medical profession struggles to replace retiring oncologists, researchers said on Tuesday.
The study predicted a shortfall of 2,550 to 4,080 oncologists by 2020. The overall U.S. population and, most significantly, the proportion of older people are growing, along with the number of people who have survived a bout with cancer, the researchers noted.
The number of oncologists is growing at a slower rate. There were 10,400 in 2005, and the study projected a total of about 12,500 in 2020.
“The graying of America will result in a substantial increase in demand for cancer-specific health care in the next 10 to 15 years. This is a looming crisis,” said Dr. Dean Bajorin, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York involved in work force issues for the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Because cancer incidence rises with age, particularly after 65, experts expect a surge in demand for cancer treatment in coming years.
The study forecast that patient demands for visits to cancer doctors will increase by 48 percent by 2020, while these doctors’ capacity to see patients will rise only 14 percent.
The study was commissioned by ASCO, a professional organization for cancer doctors, and published in its Journal of Oncology Practice.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease, killing more than half a million people a year.
Bajorin said another part of the problem is a funding squeeze the Bush administration has put on the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health and a key funder in the cancer field.
Many practicing oncologists are nearing retirement and only a few oncology fellowship training positions exist.
“We will graduate more oncologists,” Dr. Michael Goldstein of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who heads ASCO work force efforts, told reporters. “But the increase is modest compared to the increase in demand.”
Goldstein said unless medical leaders address this predicted shortage of cancer doctors, patients in the future may not get the high-quality care they expect and may not benefit from recent progress in cancer research and care.
“There’s no way of rapidly opening the spigot and producing more medical oncologists because both the funding and the number of slots are limited,” Goldstein added.
“I think the medical oncologist of the future is going to be more of a team leader and spend more time directing a care delivery team and maybe less time in face-to-face encounters with a single patient,” Goldstein added.
The researchers surveyed current cancer doctors and those entering the field about things like work hours, the number of patients they see and their use of nurse practitioners and physician assistants.