Organization of Cancer Specialists in US Physician Practices and Health Systems

J Clin Oncol. 2023 Sep 10;41(26):4226-4235. doi: 10.1200/JCO.23.00626. Epub 2023 Jun 28.


Purpose: To describe the supply of cancer specialists, the organization of cancer care within versus outside of health systems, and the distance to multispecialty cancer centers.

Methods: Using the 2018 Health Systems and Provider Database from the National Bureau of Economic Research and 2018 Medicare data, we identified 46,341 unique physicians providing cancer care. We stratified physicians by discipline (adult/pediatric medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, surgical/gynecologic oncologists, other surgeons performing cancer surgeries, or palliative care physicians), system type (National Cancer Institute [NCI] Cancer Center system, non-NCI academic system, nonacademic system, or nonsystem/independent practice), practice size, and composition (single disciplinary oncology, multidisciplinary oncology, or multispecialty). We computed the density of cancer specialists by county and calculated distances to the nearest NCI Cancer Center.

Results: More than half of all cancer specialists (57.8%) practiced in health systems, but 55.0% of cancer-related visits occurred in independent practices. Most system-based physicians were in large practices with more than 100 physicians, while those in independent practices were in smaller practices. Practices in NCI Cancer Center systems (95.2%), non-NCI academic systems (95.0%), and nonacademic systems (94.3%) were primarily multispecialty, while fewer independent practices (44.8%) were. Cancer specialist density was sparse in many rural areas, where the median travel distance to an NCI Cancer Center was 98.7 miles. Distances to NCI Cancer Centers were shorter for individuals living in high-income areas than in low-income areas, even for individuals in suburban and urban areas.

Conclusion: Although many cancer specialists practiced in multispecialty health systems, many also worked in smaller-sized independent practices where most patients were treated. Access to cancer specialists and cancer centers was limited in many areas, particularly in rural and low-income areas.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Child
  • Female
  • Health Services Accessibility
  • Humans
  • Medical Oncology
  • Medicare
  • Neoplasms* / therapy
  • Physicians*
  • United States