No matter where you live in the United States, you’re bound to see dozens of “Now Hiring” signs in store windows all over your town. It’s no secret that the US is still amid a historic labor shortage, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reporting more than 11 million job openings in January 2022, nearly double the 6.4 million reported job openings in December 2019. Radiation oncology is no exception to this trend, though the reasons for the shortage and the challenges ahead are unique.
The Problem’s Scope
Radiation oncology plays a critical role in diagnosing and treating cancer, the second leading cause of death behind heart disease — even in 2020 when COVID-19 was still just the third leading cause of death. Radiation oncologists, radiation therapists, dosimetrists, oncology nurses, and others work as a team to ensure accurate diagnosis, dosage, and delivery of radiation therapy — and a shortage in any one of these roles can compromise treatment.
As medical professionals scrambled to address the global health emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, cancer screenings were put on hold. Delayed screenings mean delayed diagnoses and treatment, the effects of which are reverberating throughout medical physics and will be for some time as we continue to catch up. A study of the largest health system in the Northeast shows that screenings from March to June 2020 dropped a stunning 76% compared with screenings from the preceding three months.
Unfortunately, there’s more. There were problems with the pipeline through which new radiation oncologists and radiation therapists entered the workforce even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Studies show a troubling increase in the number of unfilled radiation oncology residency program positions between 2010 and 2020, with 19 positions going unfilled in 2020, even after involvement of the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program — a program designed to help match qualified applicants with open residency positions. Evidence suggests a drop in enthusiasm for careers in radiation oncology, with the study cited above showing a decrease in applicants listing radiation oncology as a preferred field of study.
Meanwhile, we see the opposite problem for medical physics residencies — or residencies that produce medical physicists, critical members of the radiation oncology team who are responsible for radiation safety, the maintenance of imaging equipment, and the administration of radiation therapy. In this field, the demand outstrips the number of residency programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Physics Education Programs, with one pre-pandemic analysis estimating that there should be nearly a hundred more residency positions. The problem is doubtless much direr today.
Recently many radiation oncologists, radiation therapists, and dosimetrists have found that treatment plans and other aspects of their work can be done remotely, meaning certain professionals can serve multiple clinics at once. This may contribute to the assumption that the shortage of medical physicists isn’t as serious a problem as it is. However, there are still many tasks that require oncologists and medical physicists to be on-site, and such an assumption comes at great personal cost to these professionals.
Most oncologists and medical physicists are drawn to the field because the well-being of their patients compels them, and for many of us, this drive to provide the best possible care to patients is enough to ward off burnout. However, working long hours and serving multiple clinics are ultimately unsustainable.
What Apex Physics Partners Is Doing to Solve the Shortage
Since 2019, Apex Physics Partners has been driving to make improvements across radiation oncology and at every level. This starts with education, providing resources and guidance for undergraduate and graduate students who may have an interest in—and an aptitude for—medical physics. Next, Apex is investing in medical physics residencies, partnering with the University of Kentucky’s medical physics residency, and looking to develop more residency programs. Finally, Apex emphasizes work-life balance, never taking the hard work and sacrifice of medical physicists for granted and ensuring coverage for physicists who wish to take paid time off.
Many challenges remain in radiation oncology, but we know we can address them head-on. Our director of HR and integration, Nina McHenry, says it best: “Apex is doing whatever it can to stay ahead of the competition, to be proactive in hiring efforts, and to be competitive in salary and benefits. We provide the support physicists need, and we are here to nurture and train residents. In short, we want to make our company the place to be for physicists.”
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