Cancer is not a single disease that can be easily managed, nor is it even always well understood. In fact, cancer has thousands of subtypes. The field of oncology itself is extremely complex and supports multiple intensive ongoing research objectives. The specialists who treat cancer patients—oncologists—should really be considered superspecialists, because the treatment approach used in each case is also highly variable. In addition, an oncologist is typically the lead of a multidisciplinary team (MDT) in the management of cancer care. Therefore, when developing communications strategies that target oncologists, it’s important to consider the positioning of oncologists as specialists, and approach communications similarly.
Communications Strategies to Engage Oncology Specialists
Recognizing oncology as a superspecialty is important in considering the best communications strategies. Let’s examine the broad interests and needs of oncologists. They are involved not only in cancer care and diagnosis, but also in clinical and translational research on treatment and innovative therapies. There are global standards that qualify certain doctors to provide optimal treatment to cancer patients, and these specialists are expected to regularly participate in continuing medical education (CME) programs. Communications strategies should include access to the newest clinical data, provision of CME and publication opportunities, and offered insights into new and complex oncology topics.
Cancer care has become more challenging: for one, research in the area has exposed the complexity of the disease; and two, increased awareness has made the demand for highly innovative treatments a priority in the field of oncology. The disease spectrum for cancer is vast, and oncologists today have a hand in everything from prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, to rehabilitation, management of side effects and symptoms, and research. To effectively engage with these cancer specialists is to understand them on an individual basis: What is their specific role as part of an MDT? What is their approach to cancer care? What are their clinical interests?
Understanding the Oncologist as an MDT Member
Oncologists represent the core members of an MDT; it is usually their responsibility to integrate all the information in the interest of the patient, and develop an optimal treatment plan. Other MDT team members include primary care physicians, imaging specialists, surgeons, radiologists, oncology nurses, pharmacists, nutritional and other counseling specialists, and experts from other specialties. However, while the role of an oncology specialist is a constant, the makeup of an MDT may vary, and depends on who is regionally available and qualified.
The oncologist is central to the MDT and is expected to seek MDT review of each recommended course of treatment before proceeding. Because there are gaps in cancer coverage in certain parts of the world, including Europe, it is up to the oncologist to establish alternative methods of delivering care, such as telemedicine, and to coordinate remote meetings with MDTs when necessary. Communications tactics must consider the oncologist’s role as an MDT member, facilitating immediate (as well as remote) access to resources that offer support. This means offering digital solutions that are fluid across multiple channels, meeting the need to communicate with oncologists according to their preferences.
The Specialization of Oncologists
Oncologists must demonstrate a core competency in understanding and managing a wide range of molecular-based cancer subtypes. Further, they must be able to recognize comorbidities and understand how to treat cancer with combination therapies. Ultimately, it is up to the oncologist to ensure that a recommended cancer treatment program is in the patient’s best interest. According to practice guidelines, oncologists should provide access to state-of-the-art drug therapies that are evidence based, safe, cost-effective, and preserve a patient’s quality of life.
Oncologists are often thought of as a guide along a patient’s so-called “cancer journey,” and need to offer diverse healthcare-related activities, including coordination and collaboration with MDTs. It is important to understand, however, that oncologists are not only responsible for providing treatment and care to cancer patients, but they are also involved in the innovative research that goes into improving and developing new therapies, diagnostic approaches, and preventive practices. For communications to be deemed valuable, both the approach and the content should, at the minimum, be tailored to the specific specialization demonstrated by a given oncologist.
The Oncologist’s Role in the Future of Cancer Care
Perhaps more than any other medical discipline, oncologists drive innovation in medical practice and contribute to the development of new and effective treatment options. The future of cancer care lies in “personalized” interventions, and oncologists look to build on new imaging and molecular diagnostic technologies. Using next-generation sequencing, oncologists will be able to identify patients (on the basis of their molecular profiles) who can benefit from one type of therapy, while sparing them unnecessary or ineffective treatments.
Another consideration for the future of cancer care is the involvement and action of oncologists at the political level: in gaining support for progress in the area of personalized medicine, and involving a more flexible, multidisciplinary approach to oncology practice. Oncologists are also getting involved in specialist organizations, which ensure cancer patients around the world have equal access to diagnostics, medicine, services, and procedures. As life expectancy increases, cancer incidence will be on the rise; advocating for the recognition of oncology as a specialty is important to the field and the future of cancer medicine.