Dorit Baxter, NantHealth Director of Corporate Communications
Many community oncologists offer a standard of care equivalent to the large academic hospitals, yet patient perception and financial pressures impede their mission to provide next-generation cancer treatment to more people. That is why Cancer Breakthroughs 2020 looks to partner with forward-thinking community oncologists, enabling them with access to data, participation in cutting-edge trials and improved patient visibility to bring the most advanced care closer to the patient.
American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Otis Brawley, identifies “access to health care” as “one of the chief contributors to health care disparities in general and cancer disparities specifically”. While cancer is an equal opportunity affliction, treatment is not. Medical care can be harder to access in some communities. Rural areas are home to a fifth of the United States’ population but only a tenth of practicing physicians. According to the Journal of Oncology, “The availability of radiation oncologists and radiation facilities is also of concern. There are many areas across the United States where residents have to travel great distances to receive radiotherapy.”
A Solution Close to Home
Community oncologists can help alleviate this disparity by offering high-quality care closer to the patient. Dr. Sibel Blau, Medical Director of the Rainier Hematology Oncology division explains that her practice, located in a suburban setting, provides genetic testing on every patient. “We are extremely progressive,” she notes, offering clinical trials and availing of breakthrough technology like NantHealth’s GPS Cancer™, the most advanced application of molecular medicine used by oncologists. It delivers unprecedented insights into the specific characteristics of each patient’s cancer to support prescribing the most targeted of therapies before treatment begins. Rainer is also a participant in the Federal government's Oncology Care Model, a patient-centric care model for “Providing higher quality service while cutting the cost.”
Community oncologists, or centers not affiliated with larger universities or teaching hospitals, are also usually smaller than their privately-held counterparts or have fewer levels of administration, which can mean the doctor is easier to reach directly and the patient can be seen more quickly. “Patients can get in, be seen by their doctor and get treated much faster,” says Dr. Tracey Weisberg, President and Lead Physician at New England Cancer Specialists, (NECS), Maine’s largest cancer services provider with nearly 45,000 annual patient visits at its three locations. “The care coordination is amazing.”
NECS is a QOPI®-certified practice, in recognition of its commitment to delivering the highest quality of cancer care. “We live in the shadow of Dana Farber and Mass General,” notes Dr. Weisberg, “but most of the time patients come back here to get care closer to home.”
Dr. Blau, who has encountered oncology treatment from the side of both caregiver and patient through her husband’s experience as a stem cell recipient, is able to compare the patient journey at Rainer and its Seattle-based counterparts. While the medical care was excellent in both types of facilities, Blau asserts Rainer can offer more personalized service. “I know that because I experienced it,” she explains. “At my clinic everybody knows all the patients [and] all their needs.” The anonymity of a larger setting can be unsettling to some patients struggling with the challenging treatment of a life-threatening condition. At Rainer she describes a “system that works so harmoniously [that] patients are extremely happy about it and give us lots of kudos.”
Dr. Blau’s frustration rests in one resource her clinic lacks: marketing funds. In a market where several large institutions spend top dollar to compete, amid the the bombardment of advertising patients can get the inaccurate impression that Rainer offers fewer services, not as many treatments or not as high a level of care.
“Those are our challenges,” she explains,”not enough money on marketing.” Without the same share of voice it can be hard to fight the pervasive “perception that the Seattle-area hospital is going to be always looked at as the Mecca of oncology practices.” With more opportunity to promote Rainer’s offerings, “maybe we could tell people they could get all the care they need” right in their own back yard.
Dr. Tracey Weisberg
According to NECS’s Dr. Weisberg, patients notice one thing about community oncologists: “They notice we’re going away.”
“The physician-owned practice is dwindling,” she explains. “With the cost of drugs going up, and the cost of health insurance going up, it’s really hard to financially sustain the practice.” These financial realities have made it “much more attractive for doctors to be incorporated into a hospital.” This consolidation could end up undercutting collaborative patient care, since as an independent oncology group, NECS has more freedom to collaborate with oncology and hematology specialists across the country.
How can independent, community oncologists foster collaboration despite escalating insurance and drug costs? Through alliances and coalitions. “We are not just local centers giving local treatment,” says Dr. Blau. She explains her efforts to create a network for giving patients the best care possible. Dr. Blau chairs the Quality Cancer Care Alliance, a consortium of independent community oncology practices committed to leveraging their combined knowledge and experience.
Both Rainer and NECS are allied with Cancer Breakthroughs 2020. Patients in the Cancer Breakthroughs 2020 network have access to NantHealth’s GPS Cancer™ advanced molecular profiling. This personalized molecular assessment on existing tumors helps determine the most effective cancer therapy before treatment begins.
Alliances like Cancer Breakthroughs 2020’s National Immunotherapy Coalition provide the strength of a united voice and access to next-generation cancer care to more people in more places. “I am very passionate about giving patients the best care where they are,” asserts Dr. Blau. “If there is a unique treatment, I’m supportive of it; I seek it out. Patients need to get the best treatment in the closest place; that is achievable by using community oncology.”
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