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A look at how best to care for America’s growing population of cancer survivors

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the population of cancer survivors in the United States had increased to nearly 12 million and that 40 percent of patients had outlived their diagnoses by 10 years or more.

While the continued growth in the number of patients surviving cancer is great news, some have expressed concerns that poor communication and coordination between oncologists and primary care physicians could compromise the care of survivors.

Research recently published in the  Journal of General Internal Medicine highlights how differences between oncologists and primary care physicians regarding knowledge, attitudes and practices could present challenges to ensuring a smooth transition for survivors as they move from initial acute care to post-treatment care.

In the study, researchers conducted a nationally representative survey consisting of 1,072 primary cancer physicians and 1,130 oncologists practicing in the U.S. during 2009. Doctors were questioned about providing cancer survivorship care, including the doctors’ confidence in their knowledge about such care and cancer surveillance practices. Lead author Arnold L. Potosky, PhD, explained the findings in a release:

The survey tells us is that many doctors, particularly primary care doctors don’t have a high level of confidence in their own knowledge of some aspects of survivorship care, and many oncologists believe that primary care doctors are not adequately prepared to provide such care. We also see some evidence of knowledge deficits in both physician groups in terms of guideline-based care for survivors.

Among Potosky and study authors' recommendations for overcoming these barriers were for cancer survivors, upon finishing treatment, to meet with their oncologist to summarize the care received and outline appropriate follow-up care based on personal treatment history. Another suggestion was for patients to use summary forms, such as those provided by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and to find out what aspects of care to expect from the oncologist and the primary care physician respectively.

While the study focused on follow-up care cancer survivors, specifically individuals diagnosed with breast and colon cancer, the topic of how to best treat patients who have overcome a severe illness is a particularly important issue. As reported in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine, we’re a nation of survivors, and the health-care system will need to address the long-term physical and psychological consequences associated with surviving a serious health crisis.

Previously: Surviving survival: The new Stanford Medicine magazine is out, Recovering from a stroke, recovering from war: Two conversations about survival and Helping kids love life after cancer

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