Researchers at the University of Iowa were key contributors to a national study that finds cancer care in rural America is lacking and without significant changes, won’t likely improve. One of the study’s authors, Dr. Blase Polite, a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, says there are too few cancer specialists in rural areas and they face an increasing number of cancer patients. “We know that 20% of Americans live in rural areas but we found that only 3% of our cancer docs, our oncologists, are living in those areas,” Dr. Polite says. “Amazingly, 70% of counties in the United States don’t have a cancer specialist and our concern is that this is likely to get worse.”
It costs a tremendous amount of money to maintain a cancer treatment practice and the report finds many smaller operations won’t be around much longer. Polite says those doctors face a host of challenges, not the least of which is burnout. Polite says, “A lot of our small practices, those one- and two-doc or four- and five-doc practices, we surveyed them and almost two thirds of them will likely close or merge or sell in the next year because a lot of the cost pressures going on.” Medical advances are helping people to live longer, healthier lives, but he notes, there’s something of a downside to our increasing longevity, especially for rural residents.
“As we live longer, it’s just a biological fact that more people are likely to get cancer but our cancer workforce isn’t going to keep up with that,” Polite says. “We anticipate that if we continue the way we’re going right now and continue the way we deliver care right now, as many as 400,000 cancer patients out there in the future may have a difficult time finding a doc.” One of the fears is that some rural patients will simply give up because of the uphill fight to get treatment in a far-away city.
Polite says, “You have to imagine when folks have to travel three and four hours to get care, especially if you’ve got cancer and you’re not feeling great, there are going to be some folks who just decide not to keep going forward with treatment.” Polite is a member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which put out the report, “The State of Cancer Care in America: 2014.” Learn more at the website: www.asco.org