Patient access to cancer care threatened by growing demand, physician shortages

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The first-ever comprehensive assessment of challenges facing the U.S. cancer care system suggests patient access to cancer care will be threatened as growing demand for care outstrips the supply of oncologists, and as cost pressures force the closure of small physician practices that form the backbone of care in many communities.

The State of Cancer Care in America: 2014, a landmark report released recently by the American Society of Clinical Oncology and highlighted at a Congressional briefing, examines how oncologists are trying to adapt to a growing demand for services, changes in healthcare delivery systems and to the economic pressures of maintaining small practices.

The report also recommends specific steps to preserve patient access, while improving the quality of care and slowing a projected rise in costs.

Improvement

Advances in cancer treatment, screening and prevention have produced a dramatic decline in cancer deaths in recent decades, with a record 13.7 million cancer survivors living in the U.S.

Yet, due largely to the aging of the population as well as lifestyle changes, the number of new cancer cases in the U.S. is projected to increase by as much as 42 percent by 2025. At the same time, the total annual U.S. cost of cancer care is projected to reach $175 billion by 2020, an increase of 40 percent from 2010.

“We’re facing a collection of challenges, each one of which could keep cancer treatment advances out of reach for some individuals,” said ASCO President Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP.

“Collectively, they are a serious threat to the nation’s cancer care system which already is straining to keep up with the needs of an aging population. Without immediate efforts to address these threats to oncology practices, we’re at real risk of failing tomorrow’s cancer patients.”

Impact

Despite a near doubling of demand for cancer care services, the number of oncologists will likely grow by only 28 percent, leaving a projected deficit of 1,487 physicians in just over a decade.

In more concrete terms, given that an oncologist sees an average of 300 new patients each year, nearly 450,000 new patients are likely to face obstacles in getting life-saving care.

ASCO reports the projected shortfall is driven in part by an aging oncology workforce and impending wave of physician retirements.

Currently, nearly 1 of every 5 cancer specialists is older than 64. In 2008, the number of oncologists older than 64 exceeded those younger than 40 for the first time, and ASCO projects this gap will widen.

“When patients first hear the word ‘cancer,’ one of the last things they should have to worry about is finding a qualified doctor,” said Hudis.

“Any delay or disruption in cancer treatment can be devastating and stressful. We need to plan and invest to avoid that, pursuing everything from leveraging technology and innovative practice models to using non-physician providers as part of teams providing patient care.”

ASCO’s workforce analysis has already found oncologists are in short supply in many rural communities. Only three percent of oncologists practice in rural areas, where nearly one in five Americans lives.

More than 70 percent of U.S. counties analyzed by ASCO have no medical oncologists at all

Concern

Further complicating the supply of cancer care services is a growing concern about survival of smaller independent practices, especially in America’s rural communities.

According to an ASCO survey of 530 U.S. oncology practices representing more than 8,000 oncologists, small and mid-sized community practices (those with six or fewer physicians) are under tremendous financial pressure due to recent cuts to Medicare physician payments and other factors.

These practices, concentrated in the South and West, serve more than one-third of new patients, according to the new research. Nearly two-thirds of small oncology practices (those with only one or two physicians) reported that they are likely to merge, sell or close in the next year.

In small towns and rural communities, small practices are often the primary providers of cancer care, enabling people to receive high-quality, personalized treatment close to home. Closure of these practices will worsen potential workforce shortages, making access to care that is already uneven worse still.

“Patient access to cancer care is directly tied to the survival of smaller, community practices. Access to convenient, high-quality cancer care shouldn’t depend on where you live, but it often does,” said Hudis.

“For people who are very sick, often elderly, with compromised immune systems and struggling with great fatigue and discomfort, traveling long distances for care is not just inconvenient, but potentially harmful.

“It is important that Americans understand the effects of the policy decisions we are making. If we want convenient access to cancer care we will have to agree to act accordingly.”

Trends

The ASCO report describes several important trends that could improve the quality and value of cancer care and lessen, though not eliminate, the impact of projected oncology workforce shortages.

ASCO data show, for example, practices appear to be increasing their use of advanced practice nurses and other non-physician providers, a step that will be critical to help oncologists focus their efforts where most needed.

ASCO and many oncology practices are also exploring new healthcare payment and delivery models that reward high quality care, reduce administrative burden, and better compensate practices for the intensive services needed by patients with cancer.

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