Study Finds Medical Students Receive Little Formal Instruction
in Radiation Oncology

Researchers who surveyed radiation oncology departments at academic medical centers found that many do not offer courses related to radiation oncology. Only 41% of departments reported that at least one faculty member taught a topic related to radiation oncology. In only 25% of departments, a faculty member taught topics focused specifically on radiation oncology.

Loyola Medicine radiation oncologist William Small, Jr, MD, FACRO, FACR, FASTRO, is a coauthor of the study, which was published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology. Small is chair of the department of radiation oncology at the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

More than 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in 2018, according to the American Cancer Society. Between 50% and 60% of cancer patients will receive radiation therapy, Small says. "But our specialty is not doing enough to educate medical students about this critical component of cancer care."

A field that is little known to medical students is likely to remain a mystery to most practicing physicians, Small and colleagues write. This can result in "inappropriate referral patterns, improper treatments, false attribution of toxicities, and poor visibility of radiation oncology in national health policy decision making."

The researchers surveyed radiation residency training programs in the United States, asking about the various ways in which radiation oncologists are involved in medical student education, including clinical education, research, and career mentoring. Of the 75 academic radiation oncology departments surveyed, 49 responded, a 65.3% response rate. Twenty-five percent of departments said they had no involvement in the formal curricula at their local or affiliated medical schools. In many cases, the most significant contribution was research mentorships. Departments also reported other approaches to teaching, including multidisciplinary clerkships—also known as rotations—that include radiation oncology concepts; guest lectures on radiation oncology; and extracurricular activities such as oncology seminar series, special medical student enrichment programs, and radiation oncology interest groups.

"The study is, to our knowledge, the first to characterize the approaches academic radiation oncologists use to engage medical students, highlighting creative solutions to overcome natural barriers to progress and increase students' exposure to and engagement in the field," the study authors write.

The main goal of the study was to prompt radiation oncologists to take action in their home institutions and galvanize ASTRO and other radiation societies to take more of an interest in the topic.

"Radiation oncology as a specialty suffers from a crisis in identity, and at times even reputation, among those outside of our field," the study authors write. "If that is to change, it is incumbent on radiation oncologists to take ownership over the dissemination of knowledge about our value in patient care and the oncology team."

— Source: Loyola Medicine