Feb. 20 (UPI) -- As the number of cancer survivors in the United States is rising, the supply of doctors available to treat them keeps falling.
The number of cancer survivors over age 65 who have other health ailments is steadily climbing, but health professionals fear there wont be enough cancer specialists around to deliver care, according to a commentary published Wednesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
"The number of new patients diagnosed with cancer is relatively flat, which is good news, and the number of survivors is growing exponentially which is also good news," said Deborah K. Mayer, who runs the National Cancer Institute's Office of Cancer Survivorship and commentary co-author, in a news release. "However, we are now faced with the challenge of how to create 'right-sized' follow-up care in oncology. How do we transition survivors in a rational way that ensures they receive the proper follow-up care in the most appropriate setting by the most appropriate providers?"
To address the shortage, the researchers recommend using a risk stratification approach to treating cancer patients. It prioritizes patients with the most urgent need for care from an oncologist, along with a multi-disciplinary team of caregivers. Cancer patients with moderate-risk would see a combination of primary care physicians and oncologists.
Those with a low-risk of late-stage complications would get follow-up care from a primary care physician.
"The goal of the risk-stratification model is to provide the best possible follow-up care for cancer survivors in the most appropriate setting," Mayer said. "This will reduce demand pressures on oncology practices by allowing the cancer specialists to focus on those who are most in need of their expertise."
Since this method has gained traction in Australia, Canada and the U.K., the researchers think it could help solve some problems brought on by the shortage of oncologists in the U.S.
This system could help speed up treatment for the estimated 1.7 million Americans who received a cancer diagnosis in 2018, according to the National Cancer Institute.
"For this approach to be successful, it needs to be shaped by the perspectives of patients and their families, clinicians, insurers, advocates and health policy experts," Mayer said. "We have research data that can help us determine the appropriate level of care intensity, but that alone doesn't paint the full picture."
And wait lines for cancer patients to see specialists, the researchers say, will continue to grow. A 2014 report that predicts that U.S. will have a 10 percent gap in oncologists by 2025.
"We are facing a significant issue that will adversely affect access to care and the quality of care we provide cancer survivors," Mayer said. "The commentary identifies next steps in addressing this this growing care gap, which will become more complicated in time if we don't address now."