November 1, 2022

Top Three Challenges for Radiation Oncologists

Like many fields, radiation oncology is undergoing a severe staffing shortage. The allure of remote work has pulled many qualified people out of the in-person employee pool. That has made it all the more important for medical physics practitioners to leverage new technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), in their day-to-day operations. 

Yet even as modern tech promises to alleviate workloads by increasing the efficiency of both administrative and diagnostic tasks, it also brings a host of challenges with it.

1. Navigating Staffing and Workflow Issues

A battle of opinions rages around the question of how much help a radiation oncologist needs to safely treat their patients. Like doctors, radiation oncologists work best when aided by other medical professionals, such as dosimetrists, that specialize in different aspects of the field. When management doesn’t understand the needs of the medical physics department, oncologists might be asked to do the work of two or more professionals on their own.

In an era of short staffing, medical practices can also struggle to find qualified people to supervise their physicists. After all, only a physicist can supervise a physicist. Yet the persistent shortage of qualified talent means that administrators or doctors often try to supervise the medical physicists in their practice. Without proper training, neither of them knows where to begin.

Doctors are simply used to a different workflow than radiation oncologists. As a result, they often try to squeeze medical physics into the workflow of a physician. Complicating matters, there frequently aren’t enough resources for radiation oncologists to offer the high-quality services their patients deserve. Short of time, staff, and technology, many practices make do with the bare minimum.

Sadly, burnout is somewhat of a buzzword in many medical disciplines. Radiation oncology is no exception. As administrators and staff tussle over the optimal size of a safe and profitable practice, unrealistic expectations can set in. High staff turnover is the inevitable result of a workflow that does not take the unique needs of medical physicians into account. 

2. Keeping Up with AI Developments

The buzz around AI might lead some administrators to suppose that radiation oncology is a dying field, soon to be automated away. Nothing could be further from the truth. Radiation oncology is not dying—it’s growing. However, it is growing in different directions, and it can be difficult to predict what the coming years will bring.

The crunch caused by rising costs and falling reimbursements is likely to lead medical practices to adopt automation and AI to enhance the efficiency and accuracy of many aspects of medical physics, such as dosimetry. AI solutions are also proving crucial in the context of a data overload that’s hitting radiation oncologists particularly hard. As the frequency of medical imaging continues to rise, AI can help analyze big data to product actionable information for health-care professionals. 

That may be why some 80 percent of medical physicists see AI as a tool, not a threat. A highly trained human eye will always be an essential part of radiation oncology. Although many AI vendors are trying to package machine sales with physics and dosimetry services, that simply isn’t safe. Study after study has shown that vendor-independent reviews are needed to check the work of service providers, including AI solutions. Only a trained radiation oncologist can do that lifesaving work.

3. Retaining Quality Staff

It can be difficult to retain quality staff in a shrinking field. Even though radiation oncology is a profitable and recessionproof industry, there are only sixteen thousand radiation therapists in the US today. As a result, both demand and costs have skyrocketed. Clinics can adapt to the shortage in a number of ways. 

The first is through adopting remote work. Perhaps 70–80 percent of medical physics work can be done remotely. Even procedures that required on-site staff until quite recently, such as stereotactic radiosurgery and stereotactic body radiotherapy, are now within the reach of remote professionals. Clinics that don’t recognize this shift are likely to earn a bad reputation, and that will cripple their ability to attract and retain top talent. 

How Apex Physics Partners Can Help

As experienced medical physicists, we know that staffing and technology challenges can take time away from doing what every medical professional cares about most: serving patients. 

That’s why we empower our partners with workflows and administrative solutions that are tailor-made to radiation oncology. We conduct our own assessments of hospitals and clinics to get our processes right at each location, and our flexible contracts attract top medical physicists and dosimetrists. We handle the training and supervision so that you can be confident in the quality of the medical physics services that you offer your patients. 

It’s about accountability, and we also share liability. That means that you have one less thing to worry about in a crazy market.

Prepare for the Future of Radiation Oncology

Although the challenges posed by an especially tight labor market and ever-evolving technology can seem daunting, they are not unique. Every medical physics practice has to deal with them. That is what makes partnership in a network of practices so valuable. When many medical physicists come together to solve a problem, unexpected solutions emerge. 

Learn more about how Apex can support you, so you can focus on what matters most to you—improving patient outcomes and serving your community. Contact Apex Physics Partners today.