Striking individuals of all ages, there are more than 200 different types of cancer that can develop from almost any type of cell found in the body. According to the American Cancer Society, there is a 2015 projection of an estimated 1,658,370 new cancer cases being diagnosed in the United States, as well as 589,430 deaths attributed to the disease. In a fast-paced medical world where new drugs, advanced treatments and a greater understanding of cancer are constantly evolving, the field of oncology presents plenty of educational paths and career options for physicians.
What is an Oncologist?
Oncologists are physicians that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of cancers. According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), an oncologist is responsible for the care of their patients from the moment they are diagnosed with cancer; and throughout the course of the disease, which also includes their time in remission.
Oncologists are primarily trained to:
Trained to deliver compassionate care, oncologists generally first meet a patient when they exhibit signs of cancer, or produce test results and/or X-rays that indicate the disease is present within their body. Early visits to an oncologist concentrate on identifying the presence and type of cancer, as well as how far it has progressed.
One of the most common ways that a physician will address a cancer diagnosis is by using a staging system, from zero to four (or from I to IV), which starts off referencing the least severe cases and then onto the most aggressive. All types of cancers can be categorized in this manner, where lower stages generally call for less aggressive approaches in treatment.
When an oncologist discusses a cancer diagnosis with a patient, he or she typically pinpoints the disease's location(s); indicates where it has spread; and identifies other parts of the body that may have been affected by the cancer. An oncologist will highlight possible treatment options for the specific type of cancer in question, and recommend the best course of action.
An oncologist is also responsible for overseeing any issues associated with quality of life, including managing pain medication and treating common side effects of treatment, such as nausea, vomiting, insomnia, fatigue, loss of appetite, and constipation.
Subspecialties of oncology that a physician may pursue can lead to a wide range of intriguing career paths that include:
A doctorate degree is the entry-level educational requirement for oncologists.
Step by Step Educational Path of an Oncologist
For most oncologists, residencies typically last three to four years.
While many oncologists begin their careers working in a hospital, others may pursue employment at medical centers, pediatric hospitals, surgical centers, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, prisons, public health centers, health care organizations, and within many other industries.
Some cancer specialists join a multi-specialty group of doctors to provide a greater range of services to patients, or wind up following their aspirations to manage their own business by starting a private practice.
Oncologists also find jobs within an academic setting, as colleges and universities also hire physicians to teach and conduct research. Some oncologists choose to devote their time solely to clinical research, which may include exploring aggressive treatment alternatives and conducting studies for research organizations and pharmaceutical companies that develop new drug options.
Employers hiring oncologists typically seek the following qualities in a job candidate:
Published articles and research, speaking engagements, and conference presentations also read well on a resume, as these activities shed a light on the accomplishments, knowledge, and voice that a job candidate possesses. Employers tend to seek professionals who make a constant effort to enhance and educate the medical community, as well as the public. Also, attending medical conferences, subscribing to journals, and going to annual training workshops are other ways to stay current and informed on the latest trends, data, and treatment methods of cancer.
Other ways to increase the chances of being hired by an employer include:
According to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report (2014), oncologists earned an average salary of $290,000 in 2013, which is a slightly higher figure than the numbers quoted for all other physician specialties. Additional Medscape figures reveal that oncologists reported an increase of about 4.3% in the overall income they earned from the previous year.
The median salary earned by oncologists varies according to a variety of factors, including geography, years of experience, and place of employment. For instance, oncologists residing in the West and Southwest regions of the United States earned the highest average salaries in 2013 – between $317,000 and $331,000. Oncologists located in the Northeast were identified as earning the lowest salaries for that same year ($255,000) .
There are also large pay gaps between the different work environments and employers that hire oncologists. With an average salary of $339,000, oncologists who worked for healthcare organizations earned the most money among their peers.
Other work environments and average yearly salary figures for oncologists include:
The job outlook for oncologists is excellent, especially in regards to the increased demand to hire medical professionals trained in sub-specialties, such as radiation- and pediatric oncology. Regardless if an oncologist establishes a private practice or is looking for a salaried position, an increasing number of lucrative employment opportunities can be found in less populated and under-served areas experiencing a shortage of oncologists.
Starting a Private Practice…
Oncologists who decide to start a private practice typically do so to enjoy greater autonomy, a more flexible work schedule, and to earn a higher potential income than when working for an employer. According to Medscape, self-employed oncologists made an average of $331,000, whereas salaried employees earned an average of $270,000 across the U.S. . Because of this, starting a private practice becomes an appealing career move, especially for oncologists who have built a solid reputation in both the medical and public eye.
However, with the benefits associated with owning a solo medical business, there are a few disadvantages or factors to consider before starting an oncology private practice.
According to an article titled Partners and Partnerships: Trends in Private Oncology Practice, there were approximately 6,500 medical oncologists in private practice within the United States in 2011. Self-employed oncologists were noted to experience financial, regulatory, and emotional hardships associated with their private practice . For instance, ongoing healthcare reform has strongly influenced and changed the business practice of oncology in the U.S.
Oncology private practices are also said to face unique circumstances that other specialty medical practices do not. The overall field of oncology is oftentimes affected by the politics, current trends, economics, regulations, and reimbursement practices associated with the treatment of cancer. Additionally, regional vacancy rates ranging from 30% to 50% are also believed to place a great deal of stress on existing oncology health care providers.
All of the above-mentioned factors that can affect the field of oncology are primary reasons why an increased number of experienced and newly trained oncologists are shifting away from the notion of owning a practice, and instead choosing to join larger single- and multiple-specialty groups, or find employment at hospitals and within other industries.
The journey towards becoming an oncologist means entering an extremely rewarding career field that goes beyond the prospect of achieving wealth, prosperity, and financial security. The road towards obtaining the proper training, education and credentials is quite lengthy, and can take more than 13 years for an individual to complete. However, the wide-ranging possibilities to put an education and training in oncology to good use is a fulfilling journey for physicians looking to dedicate their efforts towards helping patients diagnosed with cancer.