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A radiation oncologist is part of the oncology family (surgical, medical, radiation) and is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with radiation. Radiation oncologists are the only physicians with the expertise and training to deliver radiation therapy treatments. Typically, a radiation oncologist will use their expertise and training in radiation therapy to treat a wide variety of cancers. Radiation oncologists also have expertise in the treatment of non-malignant conditions with radiation therapy.
Currently, there are about 3,900 radiation oncologists in the United States.
After undergraduate and medical school graduations, the path to becoming a radiation oncologist includes undergoing five years of residency training. A radiation oncologist begins post-graduate training with a one-year general residency in a specialty that can range from internal medicine, pediatrics, surgery, and obstetrics and gynecology. Following the initial one-year post graduate training, the candidate will begin to earn American Board of Radiology certification. To do this, the candidate must complete a full four-year specialty residency program to be eligible to take the board exams. By the time a radiation oncologist official enters the field, the candidate will have completed nine years of graduate and post-graduate training.
Board certified doctors will need to complete certain activities to maintain their certification, including completing a number of Maintenance of Certification (MOC) activities every two years, earning enough points from those activities every five years, and retaking the certification exam every ten years.
Where Radiation Oncologists Work
Radiation oncologists generally work out of hospitals or clinics where an 8-10 hour workday is common. Each day will likely involve new patient consultations, follow up appointments, tumor boards, treatment planning, quality and safety rounds, special procedures in the operating room, and care of patients currently receiving radiotherapy treatment, as well as teaching and research in the academic setting.
Average salaries for radiation oncologists range from $189,501 to $497,783 with an average salary of $312,298. The length of a radiation oncologist’s career, as well as the location of employment, has large influences on the tier of pay.
How They Help People
A radiation oncologist oversees a patient’s care from the beginning stage of cancer diagnosis and throughout the course of the disease.
The oncologist’s role includes:
- Explaining the cancer diagnosis and stage to the patient
- Discussing all relevant treatment options and recommendations
- Delivering high-quality, compassionate care
- Helping the patient manage cancer-related pain and other symptoms or treatment side effects
A radiation oncologist is often part of a cancer-treating team that includes oncologists who specialize in different areas of oncology. This means that the patient will likely receive a combination of care, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Specifically, a radiation oncologist is responsible for assessing each patient by way of clinical evaluation, and organizing imaging and other tests, in order to establish a management plan for each patient. Radiation oncologists work closely with medical physicists and radiation therapists to plan and deliver effective radiation treatment to the patient.
The goal of radiation therapy is to destroy as many cancer cells as possible with the least amount of damage to healthy cells. The actual use of radiation therapy to treat cancer works by damaging the DNA inside the cancer cells. When the DNA sustains enough damage, the cells cannot multiply, and they die.
Depending on the type, size, location, and stage of a patient’s cancer, radiation therapy may be used as:
- Primary treatment: This means it’s the main treatment a patient receives to cure, stop, or slow the cancer.
- Adjuvant therapy: This means a patient receives the treatment after one or more other treatments from the medical team (surgery or chemotherapy), with the purpose being to reduce the risk the cancer will return.
- Palliative therapy: In this scenario, radiation therapy is used to relieve symptoms, like pain, by shrinking a tumor.
Types of radiation treatment include:
- 3D Conformal Treatment: Allows radiation therapy beams to be shaped exactly to the size of a tumor. The tumor is able to be visualized in three dimensions so that the radiation beams paths and shapes can be optimized to treat cancer but minimize causing side effects to normal organs.
- 4D Treatment Planning & Respiratory Gating: Four-dimensional treatment planning and delivery enables radiation treatment to adjust to movements during therapy. In addition, 4D treatment is used to protect critical areas of the body during radiation treatment.
- Electron Beam Treatment: Electron beam treatment is different than standard X-ray treatment as it only penetrates a few centimeters into the body and then stops. It is the preferred treatment for superficial tumors or skin cancers.
- High Dose Rate (HDR) Brachytherapy: Involves the temporary placement of radioactive sources within the body to deliver high-doses of radiation to localized areas in a manner that helps protect and spare healthy tissue.
- Image-Guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT): A radiation delivery method that accounts for the movement of tumors in organs, such as the lungs, that move naturally inside the body.
- Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT): A type of highly conformal radiotherapy that uses computer-generated planning to direct multiple radiation beams of differing intensities to the tumor being targeted for treatment. The precision of these beams makes it is possible to deliver higher doses of radiation than with conventional radiation therapy while minimizing the impact on healthy tissue.
- Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy (SBRT): Combines the advanced 3-dimensional or Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) treatment techniques and Image-Guided Radiation Therapy (IGRT) to provide targeted high dose radiation delivery in just a few treatment sessions.
- Stereotactic Radiosurgery (SRS): Precise, targeted, high dose treatment that is delivered in just one treatment. This technique is mainly used for brain and spine tumors and utilizes the most advanced image-guidance and treatment planning systems available.
- Volumetric Modulated Arc Therapy (VMAT): Uses a form of highly conformal Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) computerized planning to treat patients with a rotational arc therapy that rotates around the patient while the treatment beam is on.
Radiation Oncologists and Medical Malpractice
While rare, medical studies have found that most malpractice claims against radiation oncologists relate to a delay in cancer diagnosis. Delays in cancer diagnosis usually involve the misreading of pathology slides which is often a symptom of a breakdown of communication between the radiation oncologist and the ordering physician. Radiation oncologists are especially vulnerable to claims of delay in diagnosis if they miss returning signs of cancer in cancer survivors since those patients have an increased risk for such cancers due to genetic predisposition and to late side effects of treatment.
Radiation oncologists are also at risk of medical malpractice claims predicated on radiation overdose. Patients receiving an excessive amount of radiation during cancer treatment can develop a destruction of their tissue. Because the radiation oncologist is the person who decides how much radiation to give a patient while treating their cancer, they can be found liable for any damage done by the radiation they administered to the patient.
Medical Malpractice Attorneys
If you suspect that you or a loved one has suffered serious injury as a result of a radiation oncologist’s negligence, you need an experienced medical malpractice attorney. The attorneys at Gilman & Bedigian have a proved track record of success in getting victims the compensation they deserve after medical negligence. Call our offices today for a free consultation and to learn more about your legal options. We will not charge any attorney fees until you get the compensation you deserve.