Just 13% of radiation oncologists work in rural communities, with many eyeing retirement

The percentage of radiation oncologists in the United States working in urban and suburban communities is on the rise, according to a new survey published in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology • Biology • Physics. What does this mean for patient care in more rural locations?

The American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) 2017 Radiation Oncologist Workforce Study included feedback from more than 1,100 physicians from throughout the United States. While 47% of respondents work in urban areas, another 41% work in suburban areas. The percentage of radiation oncologists working in rural communities, meanwhile, has dropped from 16% to 13% since 2012.

The survey also found that 30% of respondents working in more rural areas have plans to retire or work fewer hours within the next five years. Just 18% of urban and suburban respondents answered that they plan on retiring or working fewer hours within that same timeframe.

“Unfortunately, this trend is not unique to radiation oncology and is a problem across health care,” David Beyer, MD, former ASTRO chair, said in a prepared statement. “In the rural Arizona community where I practice, for example, there is a shortage of primary care physicians. There is a shortage of surgeons. There are many shortages.”

These were some other key findings from the survey:

  • The percentage of radiation oncologists who are female was up from 26% in 2012 to 29% in 2017.
  • More radiation oncologists are working in private practice, as opposed to academic centers or hospitals, than ever before.
  • While 94% of practices offer “shortened, or hypofractionated, radiation therapy” for breast tumors, 92% offer it for bone metastases and 74% offer it for brain metastases.

“In some ways, the radiation oncology workforce is changing to look more like the patients we treat,” Claire Y. Fung, MD, chair of the ASTRO workforce subcommittee and a radiation oncologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, said in the same statement. “The modest but noticeable increases in the number of women and racial/ethnic minorities, for example, indicate that our field is moving toward more equity. The shifts in employment patterns and the movement from rural practices to urban hubs, however, point to possible areas of disparity in access to care.”