Demand for Oncology Workforce to Rise

Last fall, NASW Special Assistant for Special Projects Karyn Walsh and NASW Center for Workforce Studies Director Tracy Whitaker attended the Institute of Medicine's National Cancer Policy Forum's workshop on Ensuring Quality Cancer Care through the Oncology Workforce: Sustaining Research and Care in the 21st Century. The workshop was held Oct. 20-21 in Washington, D.C.

The purpose of the workshop was to discuss the estimated shortage of professionals in the oncology workforce, and to identify possible solutions and policy changes that may alleviate the shortage.

"My biggest takeaway from the forum is the shortage we are facing in oncology providers across the board, including social workers," said Walsh. "One area that will be even shorter on providers and long on patient demand is the aging. There will be many more patients than there will be providers to meet the care and service demands."

According to the Institute of Medicine, a recent survey conducted by the American Society of Clinical Oncology found that the demand for oncologists is likely to rise considerably between now and 2020, with a 48 percent increase in cancer incidence and an 81 percent increase in people living with or surviving cancer. The supply of oncologists is expected to jump only 14 percent during the same timeframe.

The first day of the workshop focused on the challenges of the professional workforce specific to the needs in oncology, while the second day focused on potential solutions and priority actions needed to tackle the problems in the oncology workforce.

"At the forum, I learned about various strategies that some medical centers are using to employ and reward a strong and experienced workforce in oncology. I would say that some of these strategies could be adapted for oncology social work," said Walsh. "One of the most important tasks that social workers can do is to document their caseload numbers, time spent with clients and services provided. It was clear from the forum that this kind of documentation is important to demonstrate the need for more professionals, gaps in services, and demand for services and professional care. This data is the fundamental evidence needed to advocate for change and strategize about potential solutions."

The workshop addressed the oncology workforce from multiple perspectives, including those of physicians, nurses, social workers, family caregivers and researchers. Additionally, the workshop focused on workforce needs across the cancer trajectory from prevention, diagnosis, treatment, survivorship and palliative care/end of life.

First day sessions included Demographic and Health Workforce Trends: Implications for Cancer Care in the Future, Breaking Down the Problem: Professional Perspectives, Systems Perspectives, Patient Perspectives, and Family Caregivers. Sessions on the second day included Signs of Success/Models of Addressing the Oncology Workforce Needs, Policy Perspectives: Needed Legislative Efforts, and Formulation of a Future Strategy: A Framework for Action.

According to one presentation, 24 percent of oncologists surveyed by the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2006 believe that increased use of social workers, counselors and patient educators would have a significant impact on addressing shortages.

NASW contributed workforce data pertaining to social workers to Dr. Maureen Lichtveld's presentation, titled The Cancer Workforce: Crossing the Continuum of Disease and Care. Lichtveld is a professor at Tulane University and a member of C-Change, a collaboration among the nation's key leaders in cancer. It aims to leverage leadership and expertise from government, business and nonprofit sectors to eliminate cancer as a major public health problem.

Lichtveld's presentation highlighted facts about the health social work force, including: social workers employed in hospices are most likely to report vacancies as common (19 percent); there are approximately 1,200 oncology social workers; 13 percent of licensed social workers are in the practice area of health; social workers employed in health clinics are most likely to carry caseloads of 50 or more clients; health social workers in health clinics are more likely than others to report performing tasks below their skill level; and health social workers are less diverse than the civilian labor force and the U.S. population.

"Most of the meeting was focused on physicians and nurses," said Whitaker. "However, Dr. Lichtveld was speaking about other professions, including social work."

Whitaker said there are actions social workers can take to address the shortage in oncology providers.

"Practicing social workers can be aware of the shortage and may want to expand their skills by taking continuing education courses related to social work oncology, such as NASW's Web-Ed course," she said. "As an area of practice that is very likely to continue to grow, oncology social work may provide great opportunities for new graduates."