Here's the good news: Life expectancy just keeps getting better. A century ago, we could expect to live only into our 40s. This year, the average person can expect to live to 78. And ten years from now, by 2020, life expectancy will reach nearly 80.
But everyone won't be completely healthy. In fact the number of cancer patients will far outstrip those who can take them from diagnosis to treatment.
According to a new study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the number of cancer patients requiring radiation therapy to kill cancer cells will go up 22 percent in the next 10 years. But there will only be 2 percent more radiation oncologists to care for them.
"Shortages mean double trouble," says radiologist Dr. Benjamin Smith, lead author of the study team from the University of Texas M.D. 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," he says.
The study offers some options to try to cope with the projected shortage of these specialty cancer doctors. These include adopting more team-care models, altering the length of treatment and gradually increasing the size of residency training programs.
A new patient management team model might incorporate physician assistants and/or advanced practice registered nurses to assist doctors in caring for patients receiving radiation therapy. This should increase the number of patients who can receive care at the same time, the study says.
In many situations, shorter treatment courses have been proven more efficient and just as effective. So, radiation treatment may safely be shortened.
And, finally, residency programs in medical schools could add resources and positions in order to train more residents to fill these needed positions.
President Obama’s health reform plan will help somewhat, but its mostly aimed at preventive and primary care. The plan calls for investment in community health centers to care for an additional 20 million people.
Researchers say future studies should investigate newer and more comprehensive strategies to bolster capacity and maintain levels of quality care for patients needing radiation therapy.