If you have been diagnosed with cancer, finding a doctor and treatment facility for your cancer care is an important step to getting the best treatment possible. Although the health care system is complex, resources are available to guide you in finding a doctor, getting a second opinion, and choosing a treatment facility. Below are suggestions and information resources to help you with these important decisions.
Physician Training and Credentials
When choosing a doctor for your cancer care, you may find it helpful to know some of the terms used to describe a doctor's training and credentials. Most physicians who treat people with cancer are medical doctors (they have an M.D. degree) or osteopathic doctors (they have a D.O. degree). The basic training for both types of physicians includes 4 years of premedical education at a college or university, 4 years of medical school to earn an M.D. or D.O. degree, and postgraduate medical education through internships and residences. This training usually lasts 3 to 7 years. Physicians must pass an exam to become licensed (legally permitted) to practice medicine in their state. Each state or territory has its own procedures and general standards for licensing physicians.
Specialists are physicians who have completed their residency training in a specific area, such as internal medicine. Independent specialty boards certify physicians after they have fulfilled certain requirements. These requirements include meeting specific education and training criteria, being licensed to practice medicine, and passing an examination given by the specialty board. Doctors who have met all of the requirements are given the status of Diplomate and are board-certified as specialists. Doctors who are board-eligible have obtained the required education and training, but have not completed the specialty board examination.
After being trained and certified as a specialist, a physician may choose to become a subspecialist. A subspecialist has at least 1 additional year of full-time education in a particular area of a specialty. This training is designed to increase the physician's expertise in a specific field. Specialists can be board-certified in their subspecialty as well.
The following are some specialties and subspecialties that pertain to cancer treatment:
Medical Oncology is a subspecialty of internal medicine. Doctors who specialize in internal medicine treat a wide range of medical problems. Medical oncologists treat cancer and manage the patient's course of treatment. A medical oncologist may also consult with other physicians about the patient's care or refer the patient to other specialists.
Hematology is a subspecialty of internal medicine. Hematologists focus on diseases of the bloodand related tissues, including the bone marrow, spleen, and lymph nodes.
Radiation Oncology is a subspecialty of radiology. Radiology is the use of x-rays and other forms of radiation to diagnose and treat disease. Radiation oncologists specialize in the use of radiation to treat cancer.
- Surgery is a specialty that pertains to the treatment of disease by surgical operation. Generalsurgeons perform operations on almost any area of the body. Physicians can also choose to specialize in a certain type of surgery; for example, thoracic surgeons are specialists who perform operations specifically in the chest area, including the lungs and the esophagus.
The American Board of Medical Specialties® (ABMS) is a not-for-profit organization that assists medical specialty boards with the development and use of standards for evaluation and certification of physicians. Information about other specialties that treat cancer is available from the ABMS Web site, which can be accessed at http://www.abms.org/ on the Internet.
Almost all board-certified specialists are members of their medical specialty society. Physicians can attain Fellowship status in a specialty society, such as the American College of Surgeons (ACS), if they demonstrate outstanding achievement in their profession. Criteria for Fellowship status may include the number of years of membership in the specialty society, years practicing in the specialty, and professional recognition by peers.
One way to find a doctor who specializes in cancer care is to ask for a referral from your primary care physician. You may know a specialist yourself, or through the experience of a family member, coworker, or friend.
The following resources may also be able to provide you with names of doctors who specialize in treating specific diseases or conditions. However, these resources may not have information about the quality of care that the doctors provide.
- Your local hospital or its patient referral service may be able to provide you with a list of specialists who practice at that hospital.
- Your nearest National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer center can provide information about doctors who practice at that center. The NCI is a component of the National Institutes of Health(NIH). The NCI-Designated Cancer Centers database provides contact information for NCI-designated cancer centers located throughout the United States. It is available athttp://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/NCI/cancer-centers on the Internet. Users can select all cancer centers or search by location, type of cancer center, or cancer center name.
- The ABMS has a list of doctors who have met certain education and training requirements and have passed specialty examinations. Is Your Doctor Certified? lists doctors' names along with their specialty and their educational background. The directory is available in most libraries and online athttps://www.abms.org/WC/login.aspx on the Internet. Users must register to use this online self-serve resource, which allows users to conduct searches by a physician's name or area of certification and a state name.
- The American Medical Association (AMA) DoctorFinder database at http://webapps.ama-assn.org/doctorfinder/home.jsp provides basic information on licensed physicians in the United States. Users can search for physicians by name or by medical specialty.
- The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) provides an online list of doctors who are members of ASCO. The member database has the names and affiliations of over 27,000 oncologists worldwide. It can be searched by doctor's name, institution, location, oncology specialty, and/or type of board certification. This service is available at http://www.cancer.net/portal/site/patient(click on Find an Oncologist).
- The American College of Surgeons (ACS) membership database is an online list of surgeons who are members of the ACS. The list can be searched by doctor's name, geographic location, or medical specialty. This service is located at http://web3.facs.org/acsdir/default_public.cfm on the Internet. The ACS can be contacted by telephone at 1-800-621-4111.
- The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) Find a D.O. database provides an online list of practicing osteopathic physicians who are AOA members. The information can be searched by doctor's name, geographic location, or medical specialty. The database is available athttp://www.osteopathic.org/directory.cfm on the Internet. The AOA can be contacted by telephone at 1-800-621-1773.
- Local medical societies may maintain lists of doctors in each specialty.
- Public and medical libraries may have print directories of doctors' names listed geographically by specialty.
- Your local Yellow Pages or Yellow Book may have doctors listed by specialty under Physicians.
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) offers Your Guide to Choosing Quality Health Care, which has information for consumers on choosing a health plan, a doctor, a hospital, or a long-term care provider. The Guide includes suggestions and checklists that you can use to determine which doctor or hospital is best for you. This resource is available at http://www.ahrq.gov/consumer/qntool.htmon the Internet. You can also order the Guide by calling the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse at 1-800-358-9295 or 703-437-2078 if outside the United States.
If you are a member of a health insurance plan, your choice may be limited to doctors who participate in your plan. Your insurance company can provide you with a list of participating primary care doctors and specialists. It is important to ask your insurance company if the doctor you choose is accepting new patients through your health plan. You also have the option of seeing a doctor outside your health plan and paying the costs yourself. If you have a choice of health insurance plans, you may first wish to consider which doctor or doctors you would like to use, and then choose a plan that includes your chosen physician(s).
If you are using a Federal or state health insurance program such as Medicare or Medicaid, you may want to ask the doctor about accepting patients who use these programs.
You will have many factors to consider when choosing a doctor. To make an informed decision, you may wish to speak with several doctors before choosing one. When you meet with each doctor, you might want to consider the following:
- Does the doctor have the education and training to meet my needs?
- Does the doctor use the hospital that I have chosen?
- Does the doctor listen to me and treat me with respect?
- Does the doctor explain things clearly and encourage me to ask questions?
- What are the doctor's office hours?
- Who covers for the doctor when he or she is unavailable? Will that person have access to my medical records?
- How long does it take to get an appointment with the doctor?
If you are choosing a surgeon, you may wish to ask additional questions about the surgeon's background and experience with specific procedures. These questions may include:
- Is the surgeon board-certified?
- Has the surgeon been evaluated by a national professional association of surgeons, such as the American College of Surgeons (ACS)?
- At which treatment facility or facilities does the surgeon practice?
- How often does the surgeon perform the type of surgery I need?
- How many of these procedures has the surgeon performed? What was the success rate?
It is important for you to feel comfortable with the specialist that you choose because you will be working closely with that person to make decisions about your cancer treatment. Trust your own observations and feelings when deciding on a doctor for your medical care.
Once you receive your doctor's opinion about the diagnosis and treatment plan, you may want to get another doctor's advice before you begin treatment. This is known as getting a second opinion. You can do this by asking another specialist to review all of the materials related to your case. A second opinion can confirm or suggest modifications to your doctor's proposed treatment plan, provide reassurance that you have explored all of your options, and answer any questions you may have.
Getting a second opinion is done frequently, and most physicians welcome another doctor's views. In fact, your doctor may be able to recommend a specialist for this consultation. However, some people find it uncomfortable to request a second opinion. When discussing this issue with your doctor, it may be helpful to express satisfaction with your doctor's decision and care and to mention that you want your decision about treatment to be as thoroughly informed as possible. You may also wish to bring a family member along for support when asking for a second opinion. It is best to involve your doctor in the process of getting a second opinion, because your doctor will need to make your medical records (such as your test results and x-rays) available to the specialist.
Some health care plans require a second opinion, particularly if a doctor recommends surgery. Other health care plans will pay for a second opinion if the patient requests it. If your plan does not cover a second opinion, you can still obtain one if you are willing to cover the cost.
If your doctor is unable to recommend a specialist for a second opinion, or if you prefer to choose one on your own, the following resources can help:
Many of the resources listed above for finding a doctor can also help you find a specialist for a consultation.
- The NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, is the research hospital for the NIH, including NCI. Several branches of the NCI provide second opinion services. The NCI fact sheet Cancer Clinical Trials at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center: Questions and Answers describes these NCI branches and their services, and is available athttp://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/NCI/clinical-center on the Internet.
- The R. A. Bloch Cancer Foundation, Inc., can refer cancer patients to institutions that are willing to provide multidisciplinary second opinions. A list of these institutions is available athttp://blochcancer.org/2009/03/multidisciplinary-second-opinion-centers/ on the Internet. You can also contact the R. A. Bloch Cancer Foundation, Inc., by telephone at 816-854-5050 or 1-800-433-0464.