Strengthening the Nation's Oncology Workforce
At next week's annual meeting of the Association of American Cancer Institutes (AACI), I look forward to being installed as the Association's president. Living up to the standard set by my predecessors - including outgoing president, Dr. Shelley Earp of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center - will be difficult, but I look forward to the challenges and opportunities of this position.
AACI is unique among cancer organizations in that it is the only association dedicated solely to representing the interests of the nation's cancer centers, including both NCI-designated cancer centers and emerging centers. The nation's cancer centers are the nexus of cancer research and patient care, with a unique perspective not only on discovering the next generations of cancer interventions, but also on delivering these interventions to patients.
Many do not realize, however, that in addition to setting the standard for state-of-the-science patient care, cancer centers also serve as the training ground for the next generation of cancer researchers, physicians, oncology nurses, social workers, and other professionals dedicated to addressing the increasing burden of cancer in the United States.
As the cancer burden in this country grows, so does a crisis in the oncology workforce. In an eye-opening study published in March of this year, the American Society of Clinical Oncology with the Association of American Medical Colleges Center for Workforce Studies found that demand for oncology services in the U.S. is projected to increase 48 percent by 2020. However, the supply of oncologists is expected to increase only 20 percent by 2020. An aging and growing population, increasing numbers of cancer survivors, and slower growth in the supply of oncologists will result in a shortage of 2,550 to 4,080 oncologists, according to the report.
One solution to this problem is to increase reliance on other oncology professionals, such as oncology nurses, physician assistants, and others. However, shortages are anticipated in these fields as well. For instance, the Health Resources and Services Administration has predicted that by 2020, more than 1 million nursing positions will go unfilled. Additionally, a 2002 survey by the Southern Regional Board of Education projected a 12-percent shortage of nurse educators by this year.
These statistics - coupled with an anticipated 48 percent increase in the demand for oncology services by 2020 - are sobering, and certainly cause for alarm. However, with forethought and careful planning, we in the cancer center community can work to prevent these grim predictions from becoming reality.
All stakeholders in the fields of cancer treatment, research, and advocacy must develop innovative programs to attract the best and the brightest to careers in cancer research and treatment. Moreover, we must ensure that measures are in place to encourage these individuals to build long careers in the fields of academic research and clinical medicine. Loan repayment programs, flexible work schedules, programs to encourage women to pursue careers in academic medicine and people of color to enter the oncology workforce, and incentives for delayed retirement may help slow the tide, but the cancer community must continue to implement innovative programs that will rebuild the most well-trained oncology workforce in the world.
I look forward to working with AACI and all of its members and partners to ensure that the same spirit of innovation that has led to the incredible strides in cancer treatment, screening, and prevention we have witnessed over the past two decades can be directed to ensuring the sustainability of the oncology workforce.
Dr. Edward J. Benz, Jr.