Does Oncology Have a Recruitment Problem?

Victoria Stern, MA


December 16, 2014

In This Article

Aging and Burnout in the Workforce

The anticipated oncology shortage is also being driven in part by an aging oncology workforce. The ASCO report revealed that oncologists aged 64 years and older outnumber those 40 years and younger: 20% to 15%. This gap is likely to continue to widen as older oncologists begin to retire.

In fact, the rate of retirement may be increasing, as oncologists appear to be retiring younger than they did previously, said Dr Peace. "In the past, I observed that many oncologists liked to keep working until their final sunset, but the recent trend is for oncologists to retire early," he said. "Early retirement is most likely driven by high levels of burnout."

According to physicians, burnout is fairly common in oncology. A 2013 Medscape report on physician lifestyles found that 38% of oncologists surveyed described being burned out, ranking in the middle of the 24 specialties included in the study. The report revealed that burnout peaks in midlife and remains steady throughout most of an oncologist's career, with the greatest percentage of oncologists (32%) reporting burnout between the ages of 46 and 55 years. The top stressors were an overabundance of bureaucratic tasks, too many hours at work, and compassion fatigue. Electronic medical records, in particular, are adding a layer of work that requires a robust learning curve, especially for older physicians, and is shifting attention away from direct patient care.

Similarly, a 2012 article by oncologists at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, reported that studies examining burnout among oncology specialties found a prevalence of 35% among medical oncologists, 38% among radiation oncologists, and 28% to 36% among surgical oncologists.[1]

"Although the practice of oncology can be extremely rewarding, it is also one of the most demanding and stressful areas of medicine," wrote Mayo Clinic oncologists and study authors Tait Shanafelt, MD, and Lotte Dyrbye, MD. "Oncologists are faced with life and death decisions on a daily basis, administer incredibly toxic therapies with narrow therapeutic windows, must keep up with the rapid pace of scientific and treatment advances, and continually walk a fine line between providing palliation and administering treatments that lead to excess toxicity."


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