Students should be learning more about radiation oncology in med school

Radiation oncologists should be more directly involved in the formal education of medical students, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology.

Researchers sought to better characterize the ways in which radiation oncologists at academic medical centers throughout the United States are involved in undergraduate medical education and discover what improvements should be made moving forward.

“Radiation therapy is an important component of multidisciplinary cancer management, yet the average U.S. medical student learns little, if anything, about radiation oncology during medical school,” wrote lead author Malcolm D. Mattes, West Virginia University in Morgantown, and colleagues. “It is not surprising that a field that begins as a relative unknown to most medical students is likely to remain a mystery to most practicing physicians, and the downstream implications of a lack of knowledge about how radiation can benefit patients may be manifold, including inappropriate referral patterns, improper treatments, false attribution of toxicities and poor visibility of radiation oncology in national health policy decision making.”

Residency program directors and chairpersons at radiation oncology departments directly affiliated with a medical school were asked to describe the ways in which radiation oncologists in their department are involved in medical student education, excluding academic rotations.

The response rate was 65 percent. Of the respondents, 40 percent reported that at minimum one faculty member participates in a curricular educational session on an oncology-related topic and almost 25 percent of these sessions were focused specifically on radiation oncology.

“Many radiation oncologists want to teach, but the vast majority of our teaching is dominated by the medical student clerkship in radiation oncology and mentored research projects, both of which are important but neither of which reaches an appreciable percentage of a medical school class,” the authors wrote. “Many radiation oncologists may not even know where to begin to get involved in other meaningful ways.”

Forty-three percent of respondents had faculty involved with organized clinical shadowing of preceptorship programs for first and second-year medical students, and 12 of 49 departments had no involvement in the formal curricula at their local or affiliated medical school.

“Radiation oncology as a specialty suffers from a crisis in identity, and at times even reputation, among those outside of our field,” the authors concluded. “If that is to change, it is incumbent on radiation oncologists to take ownership over the dissemination of knowledge about our value in patient care and the oncology team.”